Thursday, July 17, 2008
I spent last week traipsing around the battlefields of the former Western Front. My task was to follow the movements of the First World War Poets (i.e. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves…..) to take photographs and videos to add context to The First World War Poetry Digital Archive (a digitisation project that I’m managing which will be launched on November 11th this year). I’ve never really been one for military tactics and battle plans, being a literary kind of girl. I, like Owen, find the “pity in the poetry”, it is the words of experience that move me rather than the horrendous casualty statistics that resulted from this confilct. The Western Front is moving though, when you know what happened there the air takes on a sombre atmosphere. It is echoed by the bugal call at the Menin Gate every evening, felt when you put your hand into the earth and feel the metal of shrapnel and cases of bullets or run your finders across the etchings in the cool white stones of the graves. You start to hear the now silent voices of the millions who moved over that ground 90 years ago.
It was poppy season and as the flowers poked their heads out of the wheat fields which were once a sea of mud I could not help think of McCrae’s poem. You know the one that goes “In Flander’s Fields the poppies grow….” (all kids learn it at some point). It was quite moving seeing the landscape littered with their red heads, a constant reminder of what happened in those fields 90 years ago. I’ve recently learnt that the, poppy as a symbol of remembrance, is actually derived from classical literature. Homer, in The Iliad, likens the poppy to the bloody head of a fallen warrior:
As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion's head fell limp over one shoulder
weighed down by his helmet.
(Homer, The Illiad, Tuecer vs. Hector - 8:342-352)
Remembrance, why do we remember this War? It no longer exists within living memory bar a few. The "Great" War has been mythologised continuously since the moment it ended until it existed as a memory for all of us, although we were not there. The TV documentaries, the films, the books, November 11th, have served us images of soldiers and mud and death in black and white. However, what we remember may not necessarily be true - that it was pointless, unnecessary, mass slaughter. Many men, of all different nationalities, cultures, and colours went to fight and die in a World War (not just confined to the Western Front) and went through that War believing that what they were doing was just and necessary. They also laughed and formed friendships and went home to live the rest of their lives with their loved ones in normal jobs and to see another War. Not every family lost a member, not every woman lost her beloved or her child. To see them simply as lambs led to the slaughter, or as lions led by donkies, is perhaps a falsity and an injustice. I do still find it difficult to come to terms with the view many revisionist historians iterate that is was needed and it was right, I can't put myself in that place, I'm a sensitive soul, but the more I learn, the more I see, the more I understand about the complexities of remembering and the complexities of history.
My photography didn’t amount to much on the trip, some nice landscape photos to be annotated with little arrows and squares - the German front line was here (red line), Owen fell here (blue box), machine post here (yellow cross). Really, the scenery is quite empty and peaceful and as I wrote in a previous post about the photography of the First World War, it’s difficult to take meaningful photographs of nothing. The poppies though, standing tall against the thousands and thousands of white grave stones that cover the landscape, left the lasting picture in my head, a picture that makes me think of certain words. Words and Pictures, Pictures and Words, for me they always come together.
A note on the above composition
I took a one of my Poppy photographs and in Photoshop created a duplicate layer. I then converted that layer to monochrome and erased the b&w poppy to reveal the red poppy underneath. Played with contrast and darkened it a bit. I then took a texture from AlexEde and overlayed this on top and decreased the opacity. I then merged the layers and played with the saturation, curves, and the usual.
The fields over which Wilfred Owen advanced to Ors in 1918