The Missing of the Somme

BOOK: The Missing of the Somme
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Also by Geoff Dyer


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This paperback edition published in
Great Britain in 2012 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

This digital edition first published in 2012 by Canongate Books

Copyright © Geoff Dyer, 1994

The moral right of the author has been asserted

First published in Great Britain in 1994 by Hamish Hamilton

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library

978 0 85786 272 3
eISBN 978 0 85786 337 9

Typeset in Goudy by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd, Falkirk, Stirlingshire

For my mother and father


List of Illustrations



Select Bibliography




The anticipation of memory

Silhouette: seeking a comrade’s grave, Pilckem, 22 August 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

‘One thinks for the moment no other monument is needed’ – Lutyens

Temporary graves marked on the battlefield, Pozières, 16 September 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

The surrogate dead

Soldiers marching past the temporary Cenotaph, 11 November 1919 (Mail Newspapers plc)

The construction of memory

Memorial stones (Hulton Deutsch)

What has he seen?

Battle-fatigued soldier (Imperial War Museum)

‘And the poor horses
. . .’ –

The 58th (London) Division Memorial at Chipilly (Mary Middlebrook)

The weight of the past

Royal Artillery Monument: the shell-carrier (Jeremy Young)

Dead weight

Royal Artillery Monument: recumbent figure (Jeremy Young)

Charles Sargeant Jagger: memorial at Paddington station

(Jeremy Young)

They are all over the country, these Tommies
. . .

The Holborn Memorial (Jeremy Young)

Elland Memorial

(Jeremy Young)

The self-contained ideal of remembrance

The Streatham Memorial (Jeremy Young)


The Southwark Memorial (Imperial War Museum)

Mourning for all mankind?

The Canadian Memorial near St Julien (Mark Hayhurst)

The only sound
. . .

by John Singer Sargent (Imperial War Museum)

. . .

Canadian Memorial on Vimy Ridge (Mark Hayhurst)


Scene of devastation, Château Wood, Ypres, 29 October 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

The ruins of Ypres Cathedral, summer 1916

(Imperial War Museum)

An Infinity of Waste

Passchendaele, November 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

‘Remember: the past won’t fit into memory without something left over; it must have a future.’

Joseph Brodsky

‘A kaleidoscope of hypothetical contingencies . . .’

T.H. Thomas, reviewing Basil Liddell Hart’s

The Real War
in 1931


Some quotations are not attributed in the text; full sources for all citations can be found in the notes. Throughout, Remembrance with an upper case ‘R’ refers to
‘official’ procedures such as the annual service at the Cenotaph; remembrance with a lower case ‘r’ to the more general and varied ways by which the war is remembered.

When I was a boy my grandfather took me to the Museum of Natural History. We saw animals, reptiles and sharks but, today, what I remember most clearly are
the long uneven lines of butterflies framed in glass cases. On small cards the names of every specimen on display had been scrupulously recorded.

Row after row, bright and neat as medal ribbons.

‘On every mantelpiece stand photographs wreathed with ivy, smiling, true to the past . . .’

Dusty, bulging, old: they are all the same, these albums. The same faces, the same photos. Every family was touched by the war and every family has an album like this. Even as
we prepare to open it, the act of looking at the album is overlaid by the emotions it will engender. We look at the pictures as if reading a poem about the experience of seeing them.

I turn the dark, heavy pages. The dust smell of old photographs.

The dead queuing up to enlist. Marching through the dark town, disappearing beyond the edge of the frame. Some turn up later, in the photos from hospital: marching away and convalescing, nothing
in between. Always close to hand, the countryside seems empty in these later pictures, a register of absence. Dry stone walls and rivers. Portraits and group portraits. Officers and other ranks.
The loved and the unloved, indistinguishable from each other.

‘Memory has a spottiness,’ writes Updike, ‘as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.’ Each
of these photos is marred,
spotted, blotched; their imperfections make them seem like photos of memories. In some there is an encroaching white light, creeping over the image, wiping it out. Others are fading: photos of
forgetting. Eventually nothing will remain but blank spaces.

A nurse in round glasses and long uniform (‘Myself’ printed beneath in my grandmother’s perfect hand). A group of men in hospital. Two with patches over their eyes, three with
arms in slings. One

in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at the elbow.

A stern-faced sister stands at the end of the back row, each name diligently inked beneath the picture. My mother’s father is the second on the left, in the back row.

Born (illegitimate) in Worthen in Shropshire, eighteen miles from Oswestry where Wilfred Owen was born. Farm labourer. Able only to read and write his name. Enlisted in 1914. Served on the Somme
as a driver (of horses), where, according to family legend, he once went up to the front-line trenches in place of a friend whose courage had suddenly deserted him. Later, back in the reserve
trench, he shovelled the remains of his best friend into a sandbag. (Every family has the same album, every family has a version of the same legend.) Returned to Shropshire in 1919 and resumed the
life he had left.

Worked, went to war, married, worked.

He died aged ninety-one, able still only to write his name.

Everything I have said about my grandfather is true.
Except he is not the man second from the left in the photograph. I do not know who that is. It makes no difference. He
could be anyone’s grandfather.

Like many young men, my grandfather was under age when he turned up to enlist. The recruiting sergeant told him to come back in a couple of days when he was two years older. My grandfather duly
returned, added a couple of years to his age and was accepted into the army.

Similar episodes are fairly common in the repertoire of recruitment anecdotes, but I never doubted the veracity of this particular version of it, which my mother told several times over the
years. It came as a surprise, then, to discover from his death certificate that my grandfather was born in November 1893 (the same year as Owen), and so was twenty when war broke out. One of the
commonly circulating stories of the 1914 generation had been so thoroughly absorbed by my family that it had become part of my grandfather’s biography.

He is everyone’s grandfather.

Seven-thirty a.m. Mist lies over the fields of the Somme. Trees are smudged shapes. Nothing moves. Power lines sag and vanish over absent hedges. Birds call invisibly. Only the
road can be sure of where it is going.

I stop for breakfast – an apple, a banana, yoghurt slurped from the carton – and consult the map I bought yesterday. A friend who was driving from Paris to catch a dawn ferry at
Calais had given me a lift to Amiens. From there I hitched in the direction of Albert because, from my newly acquired map, it was the nearest station to the villages whose names I vaguely
recognize: Beaumont-Hamel, Mametz, Pozières . . . I want to
visit the cemeteries on the Somme but have no clear idea of what they are like or which ones are particularly
worth visiting. On my map, near Thiepval, is printed in heavy type: ‘Memorial Brit.’ When I began hitching this morning, I did not know what I would find or where I would go – I
still don’t, except that at some point in the day I will visit Thiepval. For now I cram everything back in my rucksack and continue walking.

Within an hour, exactly as forecast, the mist starts to thin. Level slopes of fields appear. The dusty blaze of rape. Dipping flatness. I walk towards a large cemetery, the most distant rows of
headstones barely visible.

The cemetery is separated from the surrounding field by a low wall, dissolved in places by the linger of mist. Close to this wall a large cross appears as a mossy blur, like the trunk of a tree.
The noise of the gate being unlatched sends birds flocking from branches and back. The gravel is loud beneath my feet. Near the gate, on a large stone – pale, horizontal, altar-like –
is written:


Between this stone and the cross are rows of white headstones, bordered by perfect grass. Flowers: purple, dull red, flame-yellow.

Most of the headstones give simply the regiment, name, rank and, where it is known, the date of the soldier’s death, sometimes his age. Occasionally quotations have been added, but the
elaborate biblical sentiments are superfluous; they neither add to nor detract from the uniform pathos of the headstones, some of which do not even bear a name:


The cross has a bronze sword running down the centre, pointing to the ground. Gradually the mist thins enough for the cross to cast a promise of shadow, a darker haze, so faint it is barely
there. Pale sunlight.

The high left-hand wall of the cemetery is a memorial to the New Zealand dead with no known graves ‘who fell in the Battles of the Somme September and October 1916’. Inscribed along
its length are 1,205 names.

Near the gate is a visitors’ book and register of graves. The name of the cemetery is Caterpillar Valley. There are 5,539 men buried here.

‘We will remember them’

The Great War ruptured the historical continuum, destroying the legacy of the past. Wyndham Lewis sounds the characteristic note when he calls it ‘the turning-point in the
history of the earth’, but there is a sense in which, for the British at least, the war helped to preserve the past even as it destroyed it. Life in the decade and a half preceding 1914 has
come to be viewed inevitably and unavoidably through the optic of the war that followed it. The past
as past
was preserved by the war that shattered it. By ushering in a future
characterized by instability and uncertainty, it embalmed for ever a past characterized by stability and certainty.

BOOK: The Missing of the Somme
13.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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