Thiepval, France 1934
The Thiepval Memorial to The Somme Missing commemorates the 72,246 servicemen atomised by shellfire, buried in collapsed trenches or shredded by machine gun bullets during the Battles of the Somme from 1915 to 1918. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, construction began in 1928 and was completed four years later.
Maggie had travelled by bus from Albert to the village of Thiepval. She thanked the driver and stepped down from the bus and walked along the road towards monument in the early spring sunshine. An earlier shower of rain had released the herbal aroma of the grass, and the scent of the flowers that embroidered the healed landscape: yellow cowslip and primrose, the intense blue forget-me-nots, white daisies and battalions of tall poppies. Below the salient, a shroud of morning mist lay in the hollows. The signs directing her to the Thiepval Monument were unnecessary. Crouched on the ridge that had cost so many lives during the ebb and flow of the war, it was visible from miles around. The largest gravestone in human history.
She looked up at the soaring arch and felt cowed by the morose memorial and intimidated by the incalculable lists of names chiselled into the Portland stone. Maggie had hoped to feel a spiritual connection with her dead husband Thomas. A whispered word or a finger brushing her cheek. But, as she traced the carved letters of a random name, she felt nothing, an emptiness. Perhaps, she thought, he was lost in the throng of clamouring ghosts, unheard in the void between this world and the next.
“It is sad, is it not?” said a voice behind her, “seventy thousand young men dead. And for what? Then the living? Parents grieving a lost son, wives a husband, and children a father. Remnants like you and I. The sad leavings of this war.”
Maggie turned. She was not the callous temptress Maggie had imagined. Instead she was facing a lady of middle years, her eyes soft with sorrow and a kind smile.
Maggie stiffened. “Your son, is he here?”
“Marcel!” Madame Fournier called out.
A young boy of perhaps fifteen years appeared from behind one of the columns, dwarfed by the pale tablets of letters as he walked through the vast vaulted space.
“Marcel, voici Madame Henderson.”
“Bonjour Madame.” Said Marcel with adolescent coyness.
He had Thomas’s pale blue eyes, the slight quizzical tilt of his head and the lopsided upturn of his mouth when he had smiled at her. Smiled at her in happier times.
Maggie gasped and spread her fingers across her breastbone as if to hold her beating heart in place. This boy was her husband’s son.
“Thomas loved you so much. I am not the ‘femme fatale’ you think. We simply sought solace from the horrors of a terrible war. It was horror heaped upon horror.”
Maggie knew Madam Fournier was speaking the truth. Through his letters and poetry Thomas had tried to convey the brutal nature of the war, the horror she spoke of.
“I wanted inform you……..wanted you to know your daughter has a brother and Thomas had a son.”
Maggie still could not speak. Through the side arch she could see a lark rise, fluttering from the field of flowers to sing in the blue sky.
“I am so sorry that I have hurt you…I am sorry. Perhaps this has not been the correct thing to do, non?”
“No, you have done the correct thing.” Maggie whispered.
Beneath black skies and scattered stars
The trenches weave like unhealed scars
The land between shell gouged and sown
With broken bodies of men unknown
Their souls held fast by cloying clay
Or wire’s barbed and coiled array
As we march forward to fight and die
The ghosts of the already dead sigh.
Wraiths watching us poor sods that live
With only our wretched lives to give
Comrades in death
We differ not, from the wrecked limbers
broken bodies or splintered copse timbers
That lie strewn over no man’s land
We differ not, we who can still stand
To shake a limb at a shrieking shell
Or crouch in terror in this unholy Hell
We differ not, as we curse the fates
That brought us to where death awaits
He seeks us out. The machine gun’s scythe,
Snipers bullet or shrapnel. We fall and writhe
In trench, shell hole or hung on barbed wire
For God, King and country we die under fire.
Ask not what happened or how did I die
It matters not where on this battlefield I lie
My soul will make the long march home
Along tree lined roads, across fields loam
And to our door walk through blossom scent
To hold you to me in sorrowful lament
And wipe the warm tears from your face
For you held me close in this heartless place
When in trembling terror I wept with fear
When the heat of battle my mind did sear
Hold in your memory the man you wed
Not the soldier in this war where virtue fled
I am working on a epistolary writing project and needed poems that the main character , a WW1 soldier, would have written. I composed these poems which I hope capture the tone and style of the time.
When it happened
no human would have heard
the deafening crack.
Witness the rock slab split.
Fall away to lean nonchalantly
against the massive grey crags.
I look through the rain glazed glass.
Dead leaves huddle by the fence
against chill north winds.
Wet paving slabs stained
Where the bench stood.
I remember sitting there
not so long ago.
Hold me, hold me close
Feel my beating heart
But touch not my soul
For when I have gone
You will miss me too much
The package fell to the floor with an ominous thud. Miriam walked into the hall wrapping her dressing gown close against the cold. She turned the thermostat dial until she heard a click, picked up the package and walked through to the kitchen.
Miriam poured a mug of coffee, sat down at the kitchen table and turned the parcel in her hands examining the label. Untying the hemp string she folded back the brown paper to reveal a cigar box. Opening the lid she spread the contents on the table top: a letter, some old brittle documents, one looked like a birth certificate, and a faded photograph. There was a masculine aroma of tobacco. Apart from the letter, handwritten in English, everything appeared to be in German.
My dear Miriam
You were far too young to remember me. I have enclosed a photograph of your father. He looks quite glamorous in his uniform, do you not think? The birth certificate is yours. Of course, you had a different name then.
I will contact you by telephone. We must talk.
Laying the letter on the table Miriam smoothed the paper with her cold finger tips, as if by doing so some deeper meaning could be deciphered. Outside a neighbour was cutting his lawn. On the wall next to her a radiator ticked, hot water coursing through the pipes, but Miriam felt chilled. She reached out and picked up the photograph. A handsome man smiled at her from some distant time. His peak hat, worn at a jaunty angle, was decorated with the insignia of the Waffen SS. Underneath the stylised eagle, claws gripping a swastika she could make out a skull and crossbones bright on the dark hatband. She turned the photograph over and stared at words written in faint pencil: Rudolph Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, 8 May 1944 – 18 January 1945.
She thought of the numbers tattooed on the papery skin of her grandfather’s left arm, remembered her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah the previous month. This is not possible. Could not be possible.
The buzz of her neighbour’s lawn mower stopped. In the silence the telephone in the hall began to ring.