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05 June 2019

Battlefields



I’ve just spent a few days visiting the Somme battlefield, in northern France, which I last did about fifteen years ago. For the metal trader, of course, the opportunities as World War One finished were enormous, in the volume of scrap available for collection. The risks, though, were also presumably very high. The British particularly had a serious quality control problem in shell manufacture; indeed, when, after the battles at Neuve Chapelle and Loos in 1915, the high ratio of dud shells became public knowledge - reported by newspaper correspondents - it became a major factor in the replacement of Asquith by Lloyd George as Prime Minister. The problem - although to an extent ameliorated - had not really been solved by the Somme, in 1916, so one has to assume that any scrappy who went hunting for metal in that area two or three years later would have been risking life and limb disturbing shells still filled with high explosive. Clear it they did, though, and also reconstruct the towns and villages, in what must have been a massive effort.

But to be honest, that’s just trying to squeeze some metal relevance into this column; it’s not at all one’s first thought. My thoughts - or reactions - divide two ways. First, there is the assault on the senses, the bludgeoning of the mind by the museum exhibits, particularly the inter-active stuff (notably at the Monash Centre, attached to the cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux), and the eye-witness accounts of the unimaginable violence and brutality. 

I think at a hundred years distance we can understand the why? question. The network of interlinked alliances and treaties, the European arms race - notably naval, between Britain and Germany - German expansionism, Russia’s inability to recognise its own weakness and it’s racial support for slavic Serbia: all these factors together show how the almost inevitable slide to war happened. But it’s the how?, as in ‘how did it continue’, month after deadly month, which is the difficult one to grasp.  

I mean, those that survived the 1st July - when they learned from bitter experience that the master-plan for the ‘Big Push’ had failed - nevertheless did it again, and again, and again, as long as they kept alive, in fact. What was it that made them jump over the parapet each time the officers’ whistles blew, knowing what was waiting there? 

The other side of the coin from that savagery is the sense of calm in the cemeteries. I know a sunny day, with blue skies looking down on a carpet of spring and early summer flowers makes most things look good, but there genuinely is a feeling of peace and restfulness. It’s probably easy to slip into a smug, twenty-first century thought of “oh, it’s all militarism, and we don’t do that; just forget it”, but that, I think, is wrong. The names on those gravestones and monuments - Lutyens’ brooding Thiepval, Canada weeping for her lost sons at Vimy Ridge, the Newfoundland Caribou baying for its dead young at Beaumont-Hamel amongst them - were real people, whose lives ended brutally and cruelly; we should maintain the decency to respect them.  

The Somme is actually quite a pretty region, with rolling chalk hills and small villages. But, really, if you listened to your history lessons at school, it’s a haunted landscape, and those village names we learned in lessons - Fricourt, Mametz, La Boisselle, Pozières, Contalmaison, Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel and so on - are stalked by the ghosts of the past, and will be for a long time to come.

I apologise that this isn’t about metals or economics this week; but I did find it quite emotional, wandering on my own around the battlefield and the monuments and the cemeteries. And I found some family names there - on the Monument to the Missing at Thiepval and, strangely (with a slightly modified spelling) on the Canadian Memorial at Vimy. I’m not sure where they fit in, but they must be related at some degree. 

Oh, and history really is written by the victors. The German cemeteries - also beautifully maintained - are nevertheless bleak; plain black crosses instead of Lutyens’ engraved Portland stone, four names to a cross and just a mention at the entrance to the cemetery of how many are buried in a mass grave in the middle. And pretty much without the flowers.    

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