Sunday 5 April 2015

One Hundred Years

Passing through north-western Europe on the Eurostar from London to Brussels, the train crosses the front line of 1915 a short distance east of Armentières. At school thirty years ago we were taught the song Mademoiselle from Armentières for a play about the First World War, possibly for the then seventieth anniversary of the conflict. For contemporary sensibilities, the lyrics - of which there are a few variants - would perhaps now be considered risque for ten-year-olds.

In May 2001 I travelled from London to Paris by train for the first time, and then on to Luxembourg. The train from Paris left on a late Spring afternoon, travelling east as the evening approached. At the time I thought about the fact that somewhere on this route the train would be passing through the sites of the First World War. It's a commonplace observation to make much of how the internet has changed lives in the developed world; once aspect of which has changed definitively is travel. In 2001 I went to the Air France/Rail France offices in Piccadilly to book my train tickets to Luxembourg, something not then possible online. Although I probably could have obtained detailed information on the stations that I passed through, and the route the train took, it was sufficient that I could get to Luxembourg in an afternoon. The long train stopped and divided at Metz. The time taken for this operation meant that I took a little more interest in the station than some of the others that we had passed through. The station had very long platform and imposing architecture which suggested it was of great importance. Only later did I discover that Metz was a station on the Kanonenbahn - the 'Cannons Railway', a strategic military route across Germany to France including areas annexed after the Franco-Prussian war, anticipating the next conflict. Now, thanks to online archives, it is possible to see trench maps from the First World War, and overlay these with the current rail routes (which are often the same lines as a hundred years ago) to see where front lines would have been.

Although the First World War was studied at both primary and secondary school I attended, there were no trips to see the battlefields and cemeteries of Northern France and Flanders. These school trips are seemingly rather more common now: my brother, sixteen years my junior, did do so, for example. After the cessation of hostilities, while the landscape of north-western Europe was still devastated, the first tours began:
"In 1919, only months after the end of the First World War, the first tourist guides to the battle fields were published. Both the French railway companies and Michelin, the motor-touring company, produced guidebooks full of maps and photographs of key landmarks. Strangely however, these publications refer to the same 'sights' as normal tourist guidebooks-churches, chateaux and town halls- albeit with the repeated caveats 'all that remains of...' or 'ruins of...'
Conflict Time Photography, eds. Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian
At the time, the proximity of the war to the urban populations of Paris and London, and the scale of industrial destruction created a perfect spectacle. For non-combatants, any understanding of the nature of the conflict could perhaps only be realised by seeing the battlefields themselves. The Austrian writer Karl Kraus satirised these trips by mimicking the language of one actual prospectus in his Promotional Trips to Hell: the particular object of his satire is 'Battlefield Round Trips by Automobile organised by the Basel News':
"You leave from Basel on the evening express in second class carriages.
You are picked up at the Metz railway station and taken to the hotel by car.
You stay overnight in a luxury hotel - service and gratuities included.
You enjoy an ample breakfast.
You leave Metz in a comfortable automobile and are taken through the battlefield area of 1870-81
You are taken on a guided tour of the very interesting blockhouse at Etain [...]
You ride through destroyed villages to the fortress area of Vaux with its enormous cemeteries containing hundreds of thousands of fallen men.
You view with a guide the subterranean casemates of Fort Vaux.
You visit the Ossuaire (charnel house) of Thiamount, the continual depository of the remains of fallen men.
You get free admission to Fort Douaumont."
"You receive your newspaper in the morning.
You read how comfortable survival has been made for you.
You learn that 1 1/2 millions had to bleed to death in the very place where wine and coffee and everything else are included.
You have the decided advantage over those martyrs and dead men of first-rate accommodation and food in the Ville-Martyrs and at the Raven de la Mort.
You ride to the battlefield in a comfortable automobile, while those men got there in cattle cars.
You hear about all that is offered you by way of compensation for the sufferings of those men and for an experience whose purpose, meaning, and cause you have not been able to discover to this day.
You understand that it was organised so that some day, when nothing is left of the glory but bankruptcy, that there might at least be a battlefield par excellence."
Karl Kraus, Promotional Trips to Hell
Seven years later, Stefan Zweig approached the subject in an essay on Ypres. One assumes that he must have known Kraus' piece of invective, and the tone is occasionally similar:
"For ten marks you have it all: the entire four years of war, the graves, the huge guns, the shelled cloth-hall, with lunch or dinner, all comforts and a nice strong tea, conforming to the information displayed on every placard. Not a shop exists where they don't profit from the dead. They even offer curios made from shell splinters (perhaps these very same shells tore out the entrails of a human being), charming souvenirs of the battlefield,"
Stefan Zwieg, 'Ypres', in Journeys
For Zweig, the commercialisation of the the war seems to be the most troubling aspect, whereas with Kraus, it becomes an object of taste primarily. By the time Zweig wrote 'Ypres', the devastation of the war was already being brought into some kind of order, codified as a series of sacred landscapes, and he writes approvingly of the Menin Gate, the first of the Imperial War Graves Commissions monuments to missing soldiers. In 1919, to mark the first anniversary of the armistice in London, the Cenotaph was first constructed: there was felt the need for a focus for the ceremonial occasion. However this first Cenotaph was made of plywood, as a temporary memorial prior to the current one of stone. In recent years, since around 2000, memorials, mostly for aspects of the Second World War have proliferated in central London, partly to rectify perceived omissions in official remembrance, but, like recent events that have commemorated the outbreak of the First World War, these appear to be symbols whose importance is invested in their symbolic qualities themselves, rather than their referents: it feels the less a particular society believes in anything in common, the more need there is to bring it together for largely empty rhetorical gestures.

Writing seven years after Karl Kraus' Promotional Trips to Hell Stefan Zweig reaches a more generous conclusion in the section of the essay 'Ypres', titled 'Jamboree upon the Dead':
"Nevertheless: it is good that, in some places on this earth, one can still encounter a few horrifying visible traces of the great crime. Ultimately it is something good too when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through here annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders. And all remembering for the most primitive, the most blasé natures, is somehow visual. All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned."
 Stefan Zwieg, 'Ypres', in Journeys

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