Monday, 10 November 2014


November 11th has, this year, the heightened poignancy of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. 

There has been more coverage of the Great War recently than there has been for decades. Sadly we are now reading and hearing that journalists and commentators are starting to get "bored" of it all. How awful for them. Isn't it about time that such a vast and important subject is now being treated with the dignity of proper discussion and analysis?

I think they have seriously misjudged the opinion of the people of this country. Especially when you see the extraordinary events going on at the Tower of London, with the enormous poppy display, Blood Red Sands and Sea of Red. I visited it last Friday, and it was a truly amazing experience.

It actually gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must have been like to have seen The Unknown Warrior ceremony of 1920. The way everyone turned up, for their own personal reasons and quietly showed their respect.

Siegfried Sassoon asked at that time... 
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

I hope this proves, just a little bit, that we haven't.

Those who served in the First World War were acutely aware of some bitter ironies.
There is a cutting poem by a Lieutenant John Stanly Purvis, who served at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Using the pseudonym, Philip Johnstone, he wrote a bitingly satirical poem about people visiting the battlefield sites post-war. It was written in 1918 while the war was still happening. 
The subject of the poem, High Wood, was literally one of the worst places on the Western Front. Even today, as it is inaccessible to the public, it retains an air of mystery and menace. Its reputation still holds something over the landscape.

High Wood by Philip Johnstone 
(First published in The Nation, 16th February 1918)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood, 
Called by the French, Bois des Furneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site. Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being.... Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company's property
As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me - this way ..... the path, sir, please,
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.

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