It’s always been said that the 19th century died on the Western Front; the writer Gene Smith said so, in his brief and lyrical account of a winding south-to-north trip, fifty years later. “…Verdun, … the disappearance forever of all represented by France’s glorious uniform of red pantaloons, and Germany’s wonderfully martial spiked helmets. Madelon and Germania flocked to the stations to kiss the warriors— “À Berlin!” “Nach Paris!” — and in the end the trains stopped at Verdun. After terrible Verdun, after the mules drowning in this shell hole here, after the disemboweled boys screaming in this fallen-in dug-out, the nineteenth century was over and history was back on the track for what the twentieth was meant to be.”
Gene Smith got a book out of it, and an abbreviation of that book was published in the mid-1960s as an article in American Heritage, back when my mother maintained a cherished subscription, through all the years of living on Dad’s salary as a research biologist and raising four children, through regular rounds of new shoes, music and swimming lessons and teeth-straightening. Passing strange to think that this was first published when the Vietnam War was gearing up into full swing … and now, that war is almost as far away in time to us as Vietnam was to that earlier cataclysm. “On Old Armand the trench lines wind off in all directions, resembling choked medieval moats. Moss grows from the top of dugouts and there are great piles of rusting barbed wire. It is difficult to walk over the area; the barbed wire hidden in the undergrowth tears at the shoes, and one falls into shell holes . . . Through the holes cut in the thick steel of the machine-gun emplacements—the little doors to cover the holes still swing gratingly shut —the children bend and squint to see Switzerland’s mountains in the haze.”
I read that particular article over and over, most often reduced to tears by the aching sense of loss, the horrific tragedy of it all. We had our own small family loss to that war, in the shape of a great-uncle whose character, quirks and appearance – outside of a single stiff studio portrait – hardly anyone remembered at all but for our maiden-lady great-aunt whose strapping big brother he had been, before vanishing into the muck and death-in-job-lots on the Somme in July, 1916, as a British-born corporal in the Canadian Army. Of the Somme, Gene Smith wrote; “Along the Somme the best, finest, sweetest of England’s youth perished. They were all volunteers. In their long lines, they rose from their trenches on the first of July, 1916, and strode forward dress-right-dress and died that way—in long, perfect ranks, bayonets fixed, each man just so, with leather polished and metal gleaming. British pluck. That first of July was the worst day in the history of British arms …English people come past the Somme on holiday …Knowing vaguely that Uncle Will died somewhere around here, they halt their cars and go out and wander among the graves … they learn that in this tiny area of northern France there are not tens, but hundreds of thousands of graves. They have grown up knowing that all Mum’s boy friends save Dad died along the Somme, and all Auntie’s, but they have never stopped to think of just how many graves there must be.”
In the summer of 1970, I went on a passenger train from Brussels to Paris – this in the day of the Eurail Pass and Youth Hosteling through Europe on 5$ a day … which now seems about as distant and careless a time as that golden Edwardian afternoon, half a century before I was born. But it was very obvious, as the train crossed through the zone which had been part of the Western Front that something catastrophic had happened there; on either side of that zone, carefully tended farmland – and in the middle, a long stretch of near-wasteland, and a concrete water-tower, raised on legs that had been scarred by a regular line of chips and pocks at some point in the past. “By the monument is a little roadside inn and across the road a winding lane lined with white-painted shell casings from the big guns. All about are flat, empty fields and dripping skies; here and there are concrete floors once enclosed with walls punctured with holes for the machine guns. In some spots a bit of wall is still standing. Everything is very quiet—the shell craters, fields, low skies, the monument, the inn, and Tommy Atkins dead nine hundred and seventy-three times…”
And then there was Verdun. When I passed through France in the late autumn of 1985, I was moved to make a detour to Verdun, on the strength of Gene Smith’s description. It was a haunted and empty place. “O VERDUN! All along the dull road up from Bar-le-Duc there are concrete posts with concrete helmets on top and raised lettering saying that this is La Voie Sacrée, the Sacred Road. At Souilly, Pétain’s headquarters building is unchanged from the way it looks in the pictures that show him standing on the steps to watch the youth of a nation go northward to its fate. Seventy per cent of the French Army went up this road. Night and day the trucks went grinding by; battalions of men stood and flung crushed rock under the tires so that they would not sink into the mud.
Gene Smith finished his own tour of the front at Ypres, at the Menin Gate, where the bugles sounded Last Post every evening but for during the years of German occupation in the Second War. His book is illustrated with line drawings and now and again with photographs comparing the ‘then’ of the War, and the ‘now’ of fifty years later. “The road goes eastward, through the dreary little red-brick Belgian towns so like the industrial slums of England, and finally ends at the French border. At the road’s beginning in Ypres is the Gate. They dedicated it in 1927. On the outside facing the road is inscribed, TO THE ARMIES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO STOOD HERE FROM 1914 TO 1918. Inside: HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN THE YPRES SALIENT BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNES OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH . Kipling wrote the words. Underneath them are the names of the Missing. The featured speaker on July 24, 1927, was Field Marshal Lord Plumer … They sat in the hot sun facing the Gate with their backs to the Menin Road leading out to the Salient, and six pipers of the Scots Guards standing on the shell-shattered medieval ramparts by the Gate played “The Flowers of the Fields.” Buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry sounded the Last Post, and to the reporters it seemed as if in the throbbing silence when the calls faded away there must come some sound, some sign, from the Salient up the road. Lord Plumer cried, “They are not Missing; they are here,” and the Mums in their funny hats and long black stockings put their hands over their faces.”
A few days ago, the English Daily Mail posted a series of photographs of the Western Front today, pictures which are every bit as evocative as Smith’s book.