A Pilgrimage of Remembrance by Bel Mooney, Writer and Daily Mail Columnist.
Writer and Daily Mail columnist Bel Mooney participated once more in the WPA’s Poetry Battlefields Tour to the Western Front last month, October 2018, one of a series of tours organised by the War Poets Association and Eyewitness Tours Ltd to mark the centenary of the First World War. This final tour of the series, The World’s Worst Wound, took place 27-30 October. An account of it by Bel Mooney appeared in her column in the Daily Mail on Saturday 10 November 2018, during the remembrance weekend that marked the signing of the Armistice which brought the First World War to an end. This latest tour was attended by a record total of 51 participants.
Bel Mooney’s account of this latest tour illustrates what it is like to attend one of the WPA and EWT’s poetry battlefields tours, which typically draw participants from many ages and backgrounds. The version of this account published in the Daily Mail can be accessed online here. (Scroll down the page if necessary to the second item in Bel’s column, headed My pilgrimage brought home the true power of empathy.)
Bel Mooney has also provided a copy of the full article directly to the WPA and this is published here, below.The views expressed in the article are those of its author Bel Mooney, and not necessarily also those of the WPA. Some photographs of the tour taken by another participant, Andy Rose, will be added here in due course.
Pilgrimage of Remembrance
A PILGRIMAGE OF REMEMBRANCE
At Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Ypres, a pretty, rosy-cheeked Commonwealth War Graves Commission intern sits shivering in a bitter wind on the steps of the great Cross of Sacrifice. Chania is 22, a recent graduate from Exeter University. Like many other young volunteers in this special centenary year, she has chosen to spend four months in the wind and rain of Flanders, simply to answer any questions from visitors to the 11,965 (8,369 unnamed) graves in this, the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
Chania tells me how privately she and all her friends were furious about the recent Cambridge student union decision not to honour Remembrance Sunday — ‘I know people still at Cambridge uni who say those people do not represent them.’ Then, in a ringing voice she tells our group, ‘I am the age of many of those who fought and are buried here. There is a connection between the youth of today and these men – and always will be. All of us have once been the age these men were when they gave their lives.’
How I wish those callow Cambridge students – and, in fact, all those who say that wearing the scarlet poppy of remembrance ‘glorifies war’ – would walk with me and my friends among the pale headstones that stand like soldiers on parade. They could not then so readily insult the memory of the dead. This was the fourth, deeply moving, pilgrimage my husband and I have made to the battlefields – once again joining a special study tour organised by the War Poets Association, led by battlefield historian Andy Thompson. Once more, the experience is overwhelming. We learn history, listen to poetry aloud, and share camaraderie and tears. But whytravel to stand in that bleak cold landscape of Flanders in order to remember?
The first answer comes when, quite by accident, I come across a row of four headstones to unknown soldiers from the Lancashire Fusiliers. In all, 250,000 men perished most horribly defending an significant little town in Flanders called Ypres. ‘I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele’ wrote the poet Siegfried Sassoon. And my beloved grandfather, William Mooney was there, a teenage private from Liverpool who had already survived the 1916 carnage of the Somme.
Now, at Tyne Cot, I gaze at the anonymous graves of men from his regiment. Were they Grandad’s mates? I picture him lighting a Woodbine with them, see them sitting in a squalid trench writing to their sweethearts, hear in my heart their soldiers’ banter and despair. Those imaginings are a sudden body-blow. The four Fusiliers may have no names, yet now my tears fall for them. My grandfather survived the carnage (and was later wounded at Dunkirk) yet lived to hold both my children. These men – as beloved by their families, I hope – had all their promise, all their hopes consigned to the shattered earth, with no identity. Blinded, I bow my head. And so grief becomes universal.
All around the rows of graves are marble panels bearing 34,887 names of men from the United Kingdom and New Zealand Forces with no known grave at all – nearly all of whom died between August 1917 and November 1918. What sense can we make of such numbers? When you visit the battlefields of Flanders that question quickly numbs your brain – as it utterly devastates the heart.
We were on our trip to France and Belgium when the Chancellor was reading his recent Budget. It’s astonishing how quickly the ins-and-outs of contemporary politics recede when you are surrounded by the evidence of so much horror. Was that war futile? Did they die for nothing – as some argue? Such debates fade when you walk in solemn disbelief among the headstones. That is why I rejoiced to hear that Philip Hammond will hand out £1 million to pay for battlefield visits for school pupils. A further £1.7 million will be provided for educational projects in schools to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. This is both imaginative and morally right.
Misguided people argue that First Wold War remembrance is overdone – and we should mark and mourn ALL wars and ALL genocides. But – as ignorant of history as of symbolism – they miss the point. To remember the dead of the First World War doesn’t mean you ignore the losses of the Second. To make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz (which I have never been brave enough to do) doesn’t mean you are indifferent to Armenians. Of course not. But some horrors are (ital)so(ital) great they become tattooed on human consciousness – permanent symbols of suffering, emblematic of evil. And the more anger and grief are concentrated, the more intense they are. This is what the young need to be taught – and to experience. And it’s why I have made four pilgrimages to the battlefields. I use that important word ‘pilgrimage’ because we tread on sacred ground.
The Great War was, in the words of Siegfried Sassoon ‘the world’s worst wound.’ That wound can never be healed. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million: estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. No wonder it feels somewhat easier to concentrate on individual deaths, because through particular stories you can gain a foothold on a mountain-range of pain.
So we concentrate on the famous poets of World War 1 who have given voice to the dead. The oldest person in our group (51 people) is the distinguished poet from Belfast, Michael Longley, CBE, who was born 35 days months before the start of the Second World War and whose father was a hero of the First. And demonstrating the involvement of the young are Mira and engaged couple Sonia and Edward – all 26. In between – representing every decade – we are Christians, Jews, doubters and unbelievers, from many backgrounds and jobs, retired and working, those who choose the white flower of the Peace Pledge Union and those who wear the red poppy of Remembrance as a fitting symbol of grief. No niggling confrontation here.
Over three days, in gravely beautiful cemeteries and before soaring memorials, in cold clear sunlight and bitter, driving rain, we read aloud the words of poets like Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Blunden and many others – because they encapsulate the horror of all conflict. At 15 and passionately anti-war, I fell in love with the work of Wilfred Owen, whose words have never been bettered:
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.
Pity, indeed. Wilfred Owen (a hero who chose to return to the Western Front to be with his men) was awarded the Military Cross in October 1918, then killed in murderous machine gun fire on November 4th 1918. He was already a great poet at the age of 25. In Shrewsbury the Armistice bells were ringing when his parents’ doorbell chimed with the dreaded news. At his grave I find it hard to control my emotions – yet even more intense is the experience of standing in the small, brick cellar of the Forester’s House where he and his comrades took shelter from German firepower, not long before the end. There he wrote his last letter to his ‘Dearest Mother’, jostled by fifty men crammed for shelter in a small, smoky space:‘I hope you are as warm as I am, as serene in your room as I am here… Of this I am certain, you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.’
With our own new band of friends we drive along the Western Front, knowing that for every three centimetres of ground a British soldier died trying to capture it or a German soldier died trying to defend it. Many were fighting from duty rather than inclination – for example, Edward Thomas (widely known for his simple, exquisite poem, ‘Adelstrop’) was a complicated, sensitive literary man who kept a detailed nature diary at the Front. He found consolation in observing field mice and wondered, ‘Does a mole ever get hit by a shell?’ This brilliant man was himself killed (age 39) at the battle of Arras by a shell blast.
Many men – some famous, most not – found moments of relief on the battlefield by interacting with animals and notice odd moments of beauty. In a famous poem Isaac Rosenberg hears the song of ‘unseen larks.’ Rosenberg was a lowly private – a brilliant artist and poet whose poverty-stricken parents emigrated from Russia to England. These days his paintings fetch thousands at auction and his poetry is rightly revered. Rosenberg (whose grave we visited) was killed in action in April 1918, age 28. So the litany goes on. The loss. The waste.
Between 1914 and 1918 (and let us not forget the terrible flu pandemic of 1919) the world lost the flower of its youth. To give but one example, over 2,000 German undergraduates enlisted, hot for glory, and went over the top arm in arm, singing patriotic songs, only to be mown down in minutes by British guns. All their names are carved beautifully in oak at the German cemetery at Langemark — where we also see a large flat area of grass, the mass ‘comrades’ grave’ which is the last resting place of 25,000 more souls, whose names are on massive black blocks of stone all around. Compared to the Commonwealth cemeteries the German ones are sombre, overshadowed by trees. But how important to visit – to remember the sorrow of the mothers of Wolfgang, Otto and Fritz as well.
Just as we listened intently to British and Irish poets, so we too heard poems by Americans and two read in German. There are many Jewish graves (marked by the Star of David) in both the German and the American Cemeteries – where, under the Stars and Stripes (forever flown at half mast), I noticed the internationalism of the names: Stultz, Moskowitz, Olsen, Pezzullo, Pauw. And so many brave women too – nurses killed tending the wounded. Again and again on the message is driven into your heart: Death has neither gender, rank nor nationality.
In icy driving rain one morning we visited the impressive French memorial to the men killed in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais during the Great War: over 585,000 names of ALL nationalities, listed alphabetically. There were the names of Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg and other poets too – but also the Chinese names of non-combatant labourers who had no choice but to work on construction. It is for them too that we wear our poppies. The poppy was noticed by both Private Rosenberg (‘I snatched two poppies/ From the parapet’s edge/ Two bright red poppies…’) and Lieutenant-Colonel, Dr John McRae, one of the heroic Canadians at Vimy Ridge. After his best friend was blown to bits and McCrae had been forced to act as chaplain and bury him, he scribbled the poem that’s become an emblem of that terrible conflict: ’In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row….’ The red poppy is a sign of blood and of beauty – and that is why I do not want it drained of colour. I do not want the anger and passion bleached out.
Every night at 8.00 p.m.a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate in Ieper – Ypres. Since 1928 The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life of the town and the local people are proud of this simple tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in its defence. Last Sunday we were there – and I was honoured to be chosen by the War Poets Association to lay their wreath, flanked either side by Americans Brad Underwood and Sally Brown, who have travelled five times from Texas and from Alabama to pay their respects to the dead.
A male voice choir from Colwn Bay sang beautifully in Welsh – and then the Last Post rang out. Our own great poet Michael Longley stepped forward to read the famous lines by Laurence Binyon, heard in churches and public buildings all over Britain: ‘Age shall not wither them…..’ Once hundreds of people had responded, ‘We will remember them’ the wreath laying began. Slowly Brad, Sally and I walked from one side to the other of the massive memorial that commemorates the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. Slowly we ascended the steps to where the wreaths are placed and I stepped forward. It was a moment of great emotional power, to feel the poppy wreath crisp in my hands, to hang it in place, to bow our heads… then pace solemnly back, before the Reveille rang out under the arches.
The experience remains overwhelming. At the Menin Gate, overawed by so many strange names on white stone, you comprehend something miraculous: that this is ALL our family – the family of humankind. That mourning spreads out like ripples on a pond – our red poppies laid down as a gesture of love, pity, bewilderment, anger and pride. This last pilgrimage has left me changed by the profound, permanent importance of what we have seen. And by the immeasurable power of all those silent cries from the unforgotten dead — for Peace.