BY THOMAS O’GRADY
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
For the past few weeks, I have been thumbing back and forth through a massive hot-off-the-press coffee table book, The Great War: a Photographic Narrative. A project of Great Britain’s Imperial War Museums, the book offers a starkly candid photographic record of the horrific reality of life in the various “theatres” that constituted World War I: the trenches and the battlefields of the Western Front, of course, but also the beaches and the slopes of Gallipoli, the Zeppelin-bombed streets of England, the deserts of the Middle East, and the high seas. For the most part, this gathering of images is not for the faint of heart.
Obviously, the publication of this book anticipates the centenary of The Great War—1914-1918. It thus holds intrinsic interest for anyone invested in Irish matters: More than 200,000 Irishmen enlisted in the British forces and more than 30,000 died in combat. No doubt the next four years will see this under-written chapter of Irish history given its long overdue attention—and appropriate commemoration—by scholars, by the Irish government, and by the general public.
I must admit that I have a personal investment in all of this: my Irish-born paternal grandfather enlisted in the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment in September of 1914 and served in France and Belgium from July of 1915 until the end of the war in November of 1918. After he was demobbed in 1919, he relocated to New York City where he married his Irish sweetheart, who had emigrated before the War. An Irishman to the core, for the rest of his life he remained proud of his British military service and of the decorations he earned—a Victory Medal and a British War Medal, each recognizing general service during the Great War, and a 1914/1915 Star recognizing specifically his service in France in 1915.
As a private in the 12th (Service) Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, my grandfather was involved in many of the major engagements on the Western Front: both Battles of the Somme (1916 and 1918), the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917, and the Final Advance in Picardy in 1918. Each of these is represented in The Great War: a Photographic Narrative.
But of all the photos in the book, one in particular caught my eye immediately—and continues to hold my focus—as an indelible “emblem” not just of my grandfather’s experience but more broadly of “the Irish experience” on the Western Front. The photo, taken in Flanders, appears on page 373 of the book. Snapped by Lieutenant John Warwick Brooke, an official British Army photographer, it is captioned matter-of-factly: “Stretcher-bearers of the Field Ambulance Corps carry a wounded man through deep mud, near Boesinghe, Ypres Salient, Belgium, 1 August 1917.” The day that photo was taken, my grandfather’s battalion was in the immediate vicinity, on march from a training camp about 10 miles away in Proven to bivouacs in Elverdinghe, about a mile short of Boesinghe, en route to what would be known as the Battle of Langemarck in mid-August.
I visited Boesinghe (now spelled Boezinge) and environs last year and was immediately struck by the distinctive character of the landscape there: Just as the photo records, it is unrelentingly flat, stretching out as far as the eye can see, punctuated only occasionally by small clusters of farm buildings. Standing in the midst of that vast expanse almost a century after my grandfather, I tried to imagine how he “experienced” it. Born in Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary, he grew up in Clara, Co. Offaly: Thus, like the large majority of Irishmen of rural, village, or small-town stock who served in the British Army, he would have been accustomed to a much more textured and contoured landscape—white-washed thatch-roofed cottages in rolling fields enclosed by tumble-down stone walls, twisty roads and lanes overarched by rich leafage, meandering rivers and brooks, perhaps furzy mountains rising in the distance. The description of Flanders proffered by historian John Keegan in his book The First World War underscores the contrast: “There is one of the dreariest landscapes in Western Europe, a sodden plain of wide, unfenced fields, pasture and plough intermixed, overlying a water table that floods on excavation more than a few spadefuls deep. There are patches of woodland scattered between the villages and isolated farmsteads and a few points of high ground that loom in the distance behind the ancient walled city of Ypres. The pervading impression, however, is of long unimpeded fields of view, too mournful to be called vistas, interrupted only by the occasional church steeple and leading in all directions to distant, hazy horizons which promise nothing but the region’s copious and frequent rainfall.” Obviously, the emptiness my grandfather saw all around him in Flanders would have felt truly foreign and utterly disorienting.
It would have felt utterly hostile as well. As Mark Holborn observes in his Editorial Note to The Great War: a Photographic Narrative, the heavy bombardment of the countryside by both German and Allied artillery, a distinguishing feature of the War itself, altered the already spare landscape: “Landmarks were eradicated and trees vanished.” In the summer of 1917, nature, too, conspired to make the area even more inhospitable, as weeks of rain combined with the high water table to create the absolute quagmire captured in the photograph—some of the stretcher-bearers are up to their knees in mud. According to some accounts, thousands of soldiers actually drowned in the mud of Flanders, which in places was ten feet deep. For my grandfather and his fellow displaced Irishmen serving on the Western Front, trudging toward battle through those unspeakably miserable fields of Flanders would have given very literal meaning to that popular marching song of the day, “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary . . .”
But there is no need to take just my word on that. While my grandfather left behind no written account of his time on the Western Front and while the stories he told my father and his siblings have become blurry over time, the sensation of alienation—and of homesickness—that I imagined for him as I stood there in Boezinge last year has been registered by others, including celebrated poet Francis Ledwidge. Born in 1887, Ledwidge grew up and was educated in Janesville, an area on the outskirts of Slane, Co. Meath. (His boyhood cottage is now a museum honoring his memory.) In 1914, he enlisted in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and saw action as a Lance Corporal first at the Dardanelles in 1915 and then in Serbia (where he injured his back). In December of 1916, he returned to active duty, this time in the border area of France and Belgium with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Inniskillings.
A prolific poet since his mid-teens, the 29-year-old soldier continued to send verses home to his literary patron, Lord Dunsany, who oversaw their publication in book form both during Ledwidge’s lifetime and after his death. Written on February 3, 1917, shortly after he arrived at the Western Front, “In France” typifies how Ledwidge’s poems emphasize the bucolic and the romantic, keeping at literary arm’s length the horrific realities of battlefields and trench warfare:
The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.
Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind,
And there I wander as I will.
Clearly, the memory of those hills around Slane afforded Ledwidge consolation in the midst of the alien landscape and the lethal environment of the Western Front. In fact, in “Spring,” a poem dated March 8, 1917, he allows a flight of imagination to transport him back to Meath—to a rural landscape noisy with larks and magpies and wood-doves and kingfishers and bursting with primroses and daffodils and water-lilies and daises—until the final two lines bring him back to the here and the now of the War: “And peace wraps all those hills of mine / Safe in dearest memory.”
But the poem of Ledwidge’s that speaks most poignantly to me as I picture my grandfather passing through Boesinghe in early August of 1917 is titled simply “Home.” Like “Spring,” it catalogues pastoral life in Ireland, but in this case the memories of home are awakened by the singing of a bird in war-ravaged Belgium:
This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.
Written in July of 1917, “Home” was one of Francis Ledwidge’s last poems. He was killed at Carrefour Rose, a crossroads in Boesinghe, in a German shrapnel attack on July 31, 1917, the day before Lieutenant Brooke took that memorable photograph of the stretcher-bearers in that same forbidding countryside. A memorial to Ledwidge stands at the very spot where he was killed. He is buried a quarter mile away in Artillery Wood Cemetery. I visited both of those sites last year and paid my respects to the poet. I remembered my grandfather too.
Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.