I’ve been distracted enough not to put fingers to keyboard for the last week or so. Mainly because I had an upcoming trip to France, my first on my own due to some fairly uncontrolled sets of human circumstance and how time plays its stupid games. Travelling isn’t an issue, but I’ve had an anxiety issue relating to a fairly nasty car accident a few years ago in Northern France which a rather strange affect on my mind and gave me what is apparently termed the rather fey sounding “separation anxiety”, so I spent a week with my brain in full gibber mode, catastrophising about what would of course not happen. My hands shook on the boat a bit, and I did have to do the whole drive accompanied by blisteringly loud music to drown out the sound of my car not catching fire, gripping the wheel like I was pushing the bloody thing the whole way using every ounce of my being, with the satnav interjecting expletives over the din. I made it to Albert in the Somme in my knackered Volvo, yet again, not on fire with nobody dead.
One of the techniques I’ve used to try and control this stupid lightweight form of PTSD was installed using Hypnotherapy by a rather amazing woman. It was something I’d thought wouldn’t work, because it all seemed a bit hippy, and in the words of someone or other Never trust a hippy but mostly it has done the job, giving me a brake and an accelerator, an extra ability to say whoa, hang on a minute. When it didn’t I did something else which is I imagined what it must have been like to get on a ship, oddly probably a P&O one, and then have to get to the front in either Ypres, or Arras or on The Somme in 1916, straight out of your job as a clerk or a butcher into a soldier in khaki with a rifle and a pack, sleeping in a hedge in France and being fed jam. And what I’ve found repeatedly is there is a very fine line between fear and excitement, thin as a Rizla+ in fact, a blue one. I was excited, because although I was doing this thing on my own, I was going to do exactly what I wanted. I could stand where I wanted and stare at stuff that isn’t there and listen to what I liked on my MP3 player until I had shellshock and nobody except a landowner with a fusil de chasse shouting “sortir de mon champ” in a brisk tone or a Gendarme asking me what I’m playing at could stop me. I expect a nineteen year old lad from maybe Tower Hamlets or Sheffield, Ipswich or Hertford, Derry or Aberdeen leaving his quite possibly badly paid boring day job or even total lack-of-a-job probably felt the same. It was a war that started with a flow of excitement, ‘protecting’ a nation, the crumbling empires and their way of life. A way of life, much as now, which was often inaccessible to the vast majority of the population. A population had the guns thrust in their hands and fought in it. It’s when I mention fighting the comparison collapses; I didn’t have to go over the top, I fell over a low wall at one point, but nobody was shooting at me or if they were it was they were doing it very quietly and they missed.
There are points in time and space that we occupy, and on several occasions I found myself in areas I knew were likely to have been occupied by that young chap from wherever, the Tommy and indeed the Fritz. Times where you suddenly get a just a hint of the implication of what these young lads on both sides of the wire were up against. I went to visit and photograph one such chap, Leslie Fisher, the Great Uncle of a friend who has an interest in lots of the same bits of time I do. Once I’d got to Albert dumped the bag of chargers in my room and had a nice cup of tea, I set off to go and find Les for Les and for me; having someone to go and see and say hello to is perhaps a strange idea, but I quite like doing it, it ticks off one of the several million names cut into the Portland Stone out there, it’s doing my bit.
Les had mentioned Leslie was in Mill Road, a small CWGC cemetery very near Thiepval, an easy trundle from Albert, you can see Thiepval from the main old Roman road from Bapaume to Albert, sticking its shoulders above the trees. It can’t be more than 3 miles of windy but remorselessly pretty country roads to get there, past the signs that you are on the front; the tidy white cemeteries glimpsed through trees, the familiar brown signs pointing at this and that familiar name from our Great War history. Mill Road is just to the left past Thiepval village, just before Ulster Tower a slightly strange Tolkeinesque column in the skyline that commemorates the Ulster Division that dashed itself here against the German lines. The Road is No Man’s Land, Connaught Cemetery sits on the front of Thiepval Wood in front of the lines. If you go to the very back of this incredibly well manicured cemetery you are standing more or less on the British jumping off trenches or as close as you can usefully get without climbing a fence into a wood which still has enough unissued death in it to warrant “don’t wander off the path – danger” signs around it. If you look straight ahead you are looking up at the German lines on a reasonably steep rise, It’s not enough to make you breath hard when walking up the path through the Oilseed, but then I’m now, not wearing a huge pack or carrying a Lewis gun or a mortar or some rolls of barbed wire and someone isn’t up there on the brow of that hill in a deep fortification called Feste Schwaben trying to kill me with a crossfire of MG08 and handguns, bombs and shellfire.
I walked up there from the back of Connaught; my jumping off point, towards Schwaben redoubt the corner of which is still under where Les and his mates are buried. From there you look down at Thiepval Woods and you see the advantage; the elevation against the wooded landscape opposite that having been shelled heavily would have offered little real cover on a front that had not just this redoubt; an OP post and MG site towards the River Ancre, the fortified village of Thiepval a stone’s throw away and the line then looping round the high ground to the Leipzig Redoubt another fierce and angry hornet’s nest of weapon bearing enemy trying not to lose the high ground before it slopes off towards Authuille in the valley. The Germans, being clever sorts initially with time on their hands had dug in deep, these things were impenetrable, you could shell a redoubt for days, it would quite possibly make the occpants go mad, but it didn’t kill generally kill them. In July as these young chaps strolled out onto the remains of the farmland below the village they weren’t entirely expecting what happened, within minutes, maybe seconds of the bombardment finishing the Schwabians were up and out and ready. Nobody stood much of a chance. Les didn’t in fact die in that first attack on the first of July 1916 and that’s part of the absurd nature of these things as part of Edmund Blunden’s Regiment the 11th Royal West Sussex, he died in the attacks of October on the very same circle of hell still sitting there, more flow than ebb. Oddly this is also one of the places where Tolkein probably came up with his thought forms for the gloom laden lands of Lord of the Rings as he sat in various trenches around Thiepval in the mud whilst people tried to kill him.
It’s these moments when you occupy that space that you suddenly understand the incredible effort involved in industrialised war, all because of a short walk to the brow of that hill, 5 minutes and nearly 100 years, standing amongst yellow with the ghost of Les; looking down at where he came from and being where he ended up.