Of War – The Conception of Memory (1914-1918)

The home that was the Western Front was punctuated with sights of almost unimaginable, but regularly repeated, horror. A single quote, from the many, is enough to paint the commonplace horror in words – the diary of a Canadian Private Longstaffe, in the run-up to Passchendaele, said that life in the battlefield “contained no heroics – unless your idea of heroism is to go out night after night in all seasons and all weathers to struggle through the mud, and labour through the night on the battlefield, often under shellfire, digging trenches, repairing roads, constructing the duckboard tracks across the morass so that the fighting troops could slither across it to the front line.” (quoted in a review by Lyn MacDonald of Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the WarThe Times, 6/11/04).

The conflict between experience and narrative that this sets up is expressed in an unpublished war diary by James Nichol Beatson after 2nd Ypres in April 1915: “Passing along Zillebeke along the Menen Road into Ypres, we saw the hideous ruins, the result of the last bombardment. Words haven’t been coined to describe the desolation,” (private diary sold at Sotheby’s, Nov 2006). If words could not describe the scene, perhaps architecture could?

The effect on entire families, and hence larger communities, is also important to keep in mind. Two examples bear this out. Amy Beechey, of Lincolnshire and Plymouth, lost five of her eight sons, between the ages of 26 and 39, during the course of the war (Brothers in War, Michael Walsh, Ebury Press, 2006). Nora Anderson, of Glasgow, lost all four of her sons, aged between 19 and 26 (The Way Home, Robin Scott-Elliot, Matador, 2007).

The landscape – the trenches, no-man’s land, the concrete redoubts and fortifications, the barren ground – became the peripheral container for sights which the focused eye found almost impossible to register. This physical world provided a backdrop to the physiological experience of shock, a petrified tableau within which sights had to be consumed, and memories obliterated.

‘Bursting Shell, CRW Nevinson, 1915
In: ‘This Cult of Violence’, MJK Walsh, p142, Tate, London).

‘Hun dead rolled into crater as an easy means of burial.’ From
Frank Hurley album. In: ‘The Pity of War’, Niall Ferguson, pp194-5, fig 15. © Archive of Modern Conflict.

‘Just one of nameless thousands – a battlefield corpse in the mud.’ In: ‘Passchendaele – The Sacrificial Ground’, Nigel Steel & Peter Hart, p160.

‘The dead stretcher-bearer’ by Gilbert Rogers. In: ‘The War Poets’, Robert Giddings (ed), p158.

‘Mutilated bodies on the Western Front. Many soldiers developed a defensive callousness after seeing such sights frequently, and blotted these images out of their conscious minds forever.’ In: ‘The Great War’, Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, p168 (no ©)

The traumatising effect of seeing such sights is illustrated by the following photocopy of a page from a collection of the work of AE Tomlinson, a young poet who fought on the Somme in 1916.

Letter home, 30th April 1916. In ‘From Emmanuel to the Somme – The War Writings of AE Tomlinson’, ed Michael Copp, p95

This is an extract from one of his letters home. The original will either have been hand-written or, less likely, typed on a manual typewriter at an army office behind the lines. The drawing is Copp’s own, or an almost exact replica, and is located in the text as he placed it in the original. It is the only illustration in the entire book.

The first words of the extract describe a moment of fateful horror that defies understanding in general and, in particular, a teleological understanding of purpose in the world, which was commonplace in Britain before the war. A man is cleaning his loaded rifle, it accidentally goes off, and it blows the head off another man nearby. Tomlinson writes: ‘it was some sight, I tell you’. In other words he relates the order of events, but he stops short of describing what he saw. Then, immediately, rather than describing what his eye saw and was horrified by, he describes an element of the landscape he found himself in at the time, in this instance a firing bay in a trench. His mind has already stopped processing what his eye saw at the point of focus and concentrated instead on what it saw through peripheral vision. What is recorded in relatable memory is the incidental detail of the surrounding landscape, the architecture of the trench; the details within central focus are recorded somewhere else, somewhere more inaccessible in the mind.