While tracing my family’s WW1 history I’ve come across a wealth of art and culture that in many cases, connect to the events and places where my relatives fought.
Looking for images of La Bassée I found this striking hand tinted woodcut by Eduardo Benito Garcia (1891-1981) on the Fitzwilliam Museum website. It’s called “The heroism of our allies” and dates from 1915.
David Jones – In Parenthesis
David Jones served with the 15th Btn (1st London Welsh) RWF born was in Brockley to a Welsh father and English mother. Being part of the 113th Bgde, 38th Div, he would have spent months at a time very close by to Charles Morris. Unlike Graves and Sassoon, who witnessed Mametz Wood with the 2nd RWF, Jones was not a public schoolboy and had enlisted from Camberwell School of Art.
TS Eliot described In Parenthesis as “a work genius”. While it can be difficult to penetrate it’s surreal imagery and mythical references, it gives a uniquely modern perspective not seen in the more familiar and sometimes sentimental works of the time.
I’d hadn’t heard of him until about 2012 so I found it fitting when looking at an old book (of Welsh legends) belonging to my Grandpa’s to spot that Jones had illustrated the cover. After the war he went back to art school in Westminster, and then after converting to Catholicism joined Eric Gill’s guild in Ditchling, Sussex.
He was effected greatly from to his war time experiences living a solitary existence to pursue his creativity.
An illuminating article on Davis Jones in Standpoint Magazine.
Mametz Wood (2005)
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.
A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull,
all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.
And even now the earth stands sentinel,
reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.
This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre
in boots that outlasted them,
their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.
As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.
While in reserve with the 2nd RWF at Mametz Wood, Robert Graves went into the wood at night to look for greatcoats to keep him and his men warm. The horror of what he saw inspired this poem:
A Dead Boche
To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
Poet Ellis Evans, better known from his Bardic name as Hedd Wyn, served with the 15th Battalion RWF. He would have been along side Charlie’s Battalion as they made their way from the Yser canal bank through the muddy morass to Pilkem. On his arrival in Flanders he was heard to say: “Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn’t it?”
Recognised at cultural festival Eisteddfod on previous occasions, he’d entered his poem “Yr Arwr” (The Hero) under the name of “Fleur de Lis”. The tradition of the Eisteddfod meant that poems had to be entered under assumed names. Trumpets would sound inviting the winner to reveal themselves. In front of an audience including Prime Minister Lloyd George, no one came forward. After three attempts it was announced that Hedd Wyn was the author and that he’d been killed just six weeks earlier.
A comrade saw him hit by a shell during the attack. He was subsequently carried to a Field Dressing Station but died from his wounds that day at 11am on 31st July 1917.
“The festival in tears and the poet in his grave”
The prize – a hand carved “Bard’s chair” was created, ironically by a Belgian refugee, was left empty and draped in a black cloth as a tribute to the dead poet.
Hedd Wyn is buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery near Boezinghe along with Irish poet and activist Francis Ledwidge who was also killed, while drinking tea in a shell hole, during the same battle and on the same day.
This one has no direct connection, however it brings to mind a late October day in Belgium and the time when Bertie was killed.
The Falling Leaves
Margaret Postgate Cole
Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.