‘Battlefields’, Honest History, 12 June 2014
Paul Daley, columnist for the Guardian Australia, has written a number of books – Armageddon, Beersheba, Collingwood: A Love Story – which take the reader to both the battlefield and the homefront. The books are unconventional and iconoclastic. Mike Bowers, photojournalist and contributor to the ABC’s Insiders, has collaborated with Daley, adding sensitive depth to Daley’s text, and written and edited books of his own. HH
I have many acquaintances who’ve returned from visits to the World War I battlefields of France and Belgium disappointed with their experiences. Yes, they’ve enjoyed wonderful food and wine, made new friends and stayed in deluxe boutique accommodation in impossibly beautiful towns and villages. But too few of them have returned with that – admittedly somewhat intangible – ‘sense’ that they went searching for.
It is, I think, a small sense of what it might vaguely have been like for the soldiers and of what the places where such terrible things unfolded almost a century ago might have looked like back then. ‘You know that so many men died on the Western Front. The proof is everywhere, in the cemeteries that line the roadsides and in the old photographs. But even though you are there it is just so hard to imagine what took place’, a good friend recently said.
I know precisely what he means. Most people who visit the old battlefields of Europe – let’s call them commemoration tourists – do so in the warmer months of spring and summer. It’s easier and safer – no ice on the road – to get around, the famous estaminets and lovely beer gardens and restaurants are all open and the earth is firm underfoot. A good guide (one with a military historian’s detailed knowledge of battles but a storyteller’s capacity for narrative) and a carefully compiled reading list helps enormously.
Here’s how I described, in Meanjin, the misconception that visiting the Western Front during the glorious warmer months can lead to.
The Belgian-French summer is an incongruously beautiful stage for such a vast horror, with the milky light refracting off wheat fields budding in a palette ranging across every hue of green and gold and russet. Then, of course, there are the ubiquitous, almost cliched poppy fields, the lark song and the long tranquil twilights rendered more magical by the countless bells that peal from churches in a procession of picture-postcard villages that, ninety-five years ago, were mostly reduced to piles of rubble and burnt-out machines and viscera.
Winter – the fields of deep, sticky mud and the sleety rain and snow needling in horizontally make you, protected in your thermals and ski jacket, wonder how the hell the troops survived – lends a more foreboding atmosphere to the Western Front. Cemeteries, with their rows upon rows of blonde stones, seem beautiful, serene, in that milky summer light whereas the winter darkness and weather lends them a malevolent, evocative poignancy.
In winter, verges crumble at the sides of roads to reveal unexploded shells and grenades, while the rains wash thousands of coin-sized fragments of rusty shrapnel to the surface, scattering them all over roads and footpaths. If you can find a decent guide who’s not skiing the Pyrenees or thawing in the Caribbean, you might – with a decent story or two and some sepia images to inspire the imagination – make out the furrow in that potato field where the supply trench once ran.
The Western Front was at its worst for the troops, allied and enemy, in winter. So, through experiencing the weather and the mud it’s possible to imagine but not to truly empathise. There’s a few of the hundreds of thousands of the ‘original’ trenches (excavated and reinforced by the hands of the living) still about. But, for the most part, the archaeology of the Western Front battlefields is apparent in few places these days.
Dig a few feet below the surface and it’s all there, however: tonne upon tonne of unexploded ordinance. And the bodies of tens of thousands of men who, ripped to pieces by the searing, jagged shrapnel, drowned in the quagmire of mud and viscera before being sucked down into it until the plough-shield or the bulldozer or, indeed, the archaeologist, should catch upon their bones generations later.
A few years back, in the dead of a bleak French winter, I helped recover the body of an Australian officer from a new public works trench on Mouquet Farm, the site of terrible Australian carnage in July 1916. I’ll cut a long story short: it was a weekend and the local cop was tied up with a crime; the mayor way away; our guide, who found the body, couldn’t contact the Australian Embassy in Paris or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. So we responded to his request and helped him remove the body from the mud and place it in a hessian sack so that a sewerage pipe was not laid on top.
I copped a torrent of malicious abuse from the armchair generals of the WWW, who said I: should be charged with defacing a war grave (figure that out); had disturbed the ‘slumber’ (I thought he was dead, not asleep) of the soldier and should have let him rest (again, dead – not resting) among the other ‘fallen’ (yet again). There was the usual carry-on about ‘sacrifice’, of course. I’ve never believed that any right-minded Australian soldiers consciously sacrificed themselves, although some knew they would probably die if they followed orders, which they did. Their superiors sacrificed – or expended – them. And that’s very different from the beatific, ecclesiastical notion of mass voluntary mortal forfeiture that has come to underpin the Anzac myth.
And while I’m here, a question: when will the media stop blithely, lazily, regurgitating the Anzac 100 PR line that insists on referring to our war dead as ‘the fallen’, their deaths as a ‘sacrifice’?
Enough digression. And on to the Middle East where the path of the commemoration tourist remains far more lightly trodden. A few years ago my mate, Mike Bowers, and I followed the trail of the World War I Australian Light Horse Regiments from close to the Egyptian border, through the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, on through Jordan and Syria and, finally, through Lebanon to Tripoli.
Follow the Light Horse as we did and you will find the buildings where they billeted, fought and died. You’ll find the remains of the trenches that they held and stormed, and the open plains over which they cantered and charged, and even the old railway station where they conspired with the Turks against the marauding Arabs. We even found the crumbling remains of the little Arab town of Surafend, where the Light Horsemen got together with a few New Zealanders and juiced-up Scots and massacred the local inhabitants in late 1918.
Here it is easier to connect with the original landscape that staged the Australian World War I experience, with all its military and human triumph and tribulation. In the Middle East, the archaeology of the war is mostly still on – rather than under – the surface.
We had a lot of fun travelling, walking in history’s long shadow, eating, drinking, discovering ancient places through not-nearly-as-old events involving Australians. It was at times comic and on more than a few occasions a little dangerous. We made a book about our journey, Armageddon (referred to, informally, by the women working at MUP, which published it, as Eat, Pray, Love for Blokes). While I went to many places I had not before visited – including an on-the-brink Syria where the people greeted us warmly, where Assad’s sleazy secret police constantly tried to intimidate us and where, thankfully, I experienced some of the most wondrous buildings in the world just before war began to claim them – I was delighted to go back to Beersheba, the scene of the October 1917 charge of the Australian Fourth Light Horse Brigade.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s not a lot to like about Beersheba – Be’er Sheva – as a place. I find it unfriendly and dull, having spent too many weeks there during Passover while researching a previous book. Many Israelis even consider this sprawling dusty city in the Negev, not far from Gaza, to be a bore that is best, if possible, avoided. But it’s the outskirts of the town that I’ve always gone there for, to plod about the site of the Light Horse charge and to walk the undisturbed trenches where – despite the success of the charge and the myth that enshrines it – the most visceral fighting took place between the English and Scottish infantry and the Turks on the morning of the big battle that finished with the Australian action.
Here, I’m going to plagiarise myself and throw to Armageddon, where I describe walking through what I – and a few others who’ve been there – regard as perhaps the most intact Turkish (and in this case German) trenches of World War I.
The Turks who dug in up here must have felt reasonably secure – initially at least – when the British infantry began their onslaught at dawn on 31 October 1917, because in order to get to the first line of trenches, the attacking soldiers had to traverse a steep, rocky hillside.
But when you poke around the trench line, the fate of the Turks becomes startlingly obvious. Jagged, razor-sharp pieces of rusted metal are embedded in the stony ground. At first you don’t see them, but you need only scratch around the concrete-like earth to find evidence of the ferocity of the attack by the British guns. The Turkish soldiers would have been literally cut to pieces by the shrapnel from the deadly accurate artillery fire.
Once the British troops made it over the initial trench line on the ridge, they were confronted by an intimidating system of Turkish dugouts and gun pits that coiled around a vast inner crater and wound its way into the surrounding hills. It would have been a trench-by-trench proposition to oust the Turks here. The British infantry suffered more than 1000 casualties that day . . . It seems probable then that the number of enemy soldiers killed was at least in the multiple hundreds.
As the sun sets behind Beersheba and the horizon glows orange like a bushfire sky at home, I’m struck by what looks like a smooth yellow piece of pottery on the floor of the trench beneath my feet. It is a knob of bone, what appears to be an elbow joint. Two other bones, perhaps from a forearm, are resting nearby.
I’ve never seen the point in commemoration tourism that leaves the traveler feeling that their connection with the past is a bit like watching the movie. Or reading the brochure. You need to work at getting that ‘sense’. Otherwise, what’s the point?