The Salient Now — and Then
Flatness of green fields, no tall trees anywhere, clusters of red-tield, red-bricked farms and houses, and a dim village-line on the far horizon, only very slightly higher, it seems, than the green flatness everywhere–that is the Salient to-day. Yet for years these few square miles were shapeless as the ingredients of a Christmas pudding while being stirred. Not even worms were left after the bombardments–all blasted to shreds, with the bricks of ruins, stumps of trees, and metalling of roads. We used to say it could never be reclaimed: that in fifty years it would be the same dreadful morass.
Mankind suffered over a million casualties within the dish, double-rimmed with inner and outer “ridges,” of the Salient. It had the outline of a skull, the teeth trying to crack Ypres–so the Germans, with grim humour, drew it during the War. A fit man can easily walk round the skull’s outline in a day; but in ’17, could he have walked without human interference, he would ahve dropped, exhausted, before he had floundered a hundredth part of the way, and been drowned with his face under the thin top mud. The bombardments broke the bekes, or brooks, draining this land, which was once covered by the sea; and the pudding became porridge, a-swim with icy water.
The only way over the morass was by the wooden tracks that serpentined over the mud–baulks of teak and beech laid side by side, looking like the sloughs, cast by monsters of the primeval slime. Always at night the tracks glowed and glared with fire and smoke and dreadful crashes; sections would rise splintered into the air, wagons, horses, mules with them; the mud bordering the tracks was piled with old broken and swelled things. The young German gunner cadets were trained in night-firing on these tracks, which were visible along their ribbed and winding lengths by day. Now if you would recall 1917 to your memory, you must stay away from this fine agricultural district.
The Genius of the Salient
Near St. Julien, opposite Triangle Farm, at a place called Vancouver, stands the most beautiful thing in the Salient. People call it the Canadian Memorial, but for me it is the memorial for all the soliders in the War. It faces towards Ypres, not towards a vanquiched enemy, as do so many of the war memorials to be seen in France to-day, such as the Gallic cock crowing triumphantly on a broken cannon at Roclincourt, or the caribou roaring eastwards from Beaumont Hamel, or the defiant artisan-soldier standing firm and fierce at Lens.
Do the dead feel cock-crowing triumph over the dead? The crowing is for the industrial magnates, the Lens or the Ruhr mine-owners, not for the poor unknowing working-men who fell in the Great Horror, and became part of it.
No; the colossal head and shoulders of the soldier with reversed arms emerging from the tall stone column has the gravity and strength of grief coming from full knowledge of old wrongs done to men by men. It mourns; but it mourns for all mankind. We are silent before it, as we are before the stone figures of the Greeks. The thoughtless one-sided babble about national righteousness or wrongess, the cliches of jingo patriotism, the abstract virtues parasitic on the human spirit, fade before the colossal figure of the common soldier by the warside.
The genius of Man rises out of the stone, and our tears fall before it.
The Wet Flanders Plain is truly an exceptional book. Of the many–and good–books written about the First World War, this is the only one I know of in which a soldier returns to the scene of his battles–or at least, until Michael Kernan’s The Violet Dots came along over fifty years later. Considering the enormous number of men who served on the Western Front between 1914-1918, and the depth to which the experience shocked and wounded many of them, it seems odd that there aren’t more like it.
But after reading The Wet Flanders Plain, the absence becomes understandable. Returning to the scene of their worst traumas is hardly something that would have been undertaken lightly. Williamson returns to the area of the Western Front in hopes of ridding himself of what he calls his “wraiths”: the memories of the many young men he served with and killed or saw killed in his time at the Front. As he describes in the moving introduction, “Apologia Pro Mea Vita,” these wraiths haunt him even ten years after the War, and drive him to seek refuge in the belfry of his village church, where only the deafening tolling of the bells can drown out the rush and noise of his memories and nightmares.
The fact that Williamson survived the War is in itself miraculous. Arriving in France in the fall of 1914 with the first wave of volunteers that followed the Regulars, he served on the Ypres Salient and the Somme throughout much of the next four years. The numbers of fellow soldiers he saw killed and wounded would certainly have left any with at least a few “wraiths” to haunt his dreams and memories.
In 1928, Williamson and another unnamed veteran journeyed back to Flanders and Northern France to revisit the places they served. Much of The Wet Flanders Plain comes from the diary he kept during the trip. They travelled on the cheap, staying in estaminets and eating at workers’ cafes, and expenses are a constant concern throughout the book.
As the excerpt above describes, they find, to their surprise, that the land has been quick to recover the calm and order it knew before the War. The sodden battlefields are all productive farmland, and birdsong–unknown during the War–can be heard everywhere. Williamson–best known as a nature writer–notes a dozen different types of song birds, and remarks on the similarities between the natural environment here and at home in England.
What remains from the War are the man-made scars: mostly German machine gun emplacements, so well-built and extensive that now sledgehammers are having to do the work millions of British shells failed at. And there are new scars as well: the many orderly cemeteries for the War dead. Even for the German dead, although these, he observes, are given cast-off bits of land, out of sight and begrudged.
The local people show little nostalgia for the soldiers who overwhelmed their land for four years. The money the battlefield tourists bring is accepted, but not as recompense for their losses. Instead, their interest seems in restoring the way life was before the war, when small matters of money, property, and neighborhood jealousies were the main concerns of everyday life.
In summary, what Williamson finds is that energies of both nature and man are devoted to recovery, not carrying on the conflict.
The dug-outs of Y ravine had subsided, the dry-rotted timbers broke with a touch; the pistons and mainshaft and cylinders of the aeroplane rusted in the grasses–I remembered the charred framework on the ridge above Station Road–with rifle barrels and holed helmets and burst minenwerfer cases. Those dreaded oil-drums of the minnies! Rust and mildew and long tangled grass and frogs. The Ancre flowed in its chalky bed, swift and cold as before, gathering its green duckweed into a heaving coat as of mail, and drowning the white flowers of water crow’s-foot. Only one thing of all our work remained–the wooden military bridge over Mill Causeway. “Out work?” a voice seemed to say, a voice of the wan star. “What you seek is lost for ever in ancient sunlight, which arises again as Truth.” The voice wandered thinner than memory, and was gone with the star under the horizon.
With the exception of the Canadian memorial described above, the cemeteries and statues seem more designed to reassure the living than to commemorate the dead. The memories of Williamson and other veterans are the truest memorials. In the end, Williamson finds “the wraiths were fled,” and himself “filled with longing for my home.” His journey has allowed him to move forward, at last, to “the new part of myself, overlaying the wraith of that lost for ever.”
- Herschel Brickell, New York Herald Tribune, 1 December 1929
- One of the best written of all the books on the war. It is slight in size and unpretentious, but worth putting aside to read again when the next storm threatens.
- Frances Bartlett, Boston Transcript, 30 November 1929
- Among the books of today marking the recrudescence of a general interest in stories of the Great War–also the growth of an abhorrence of all wars, and the determination to avoid them by every honorable means–Mr. Williamson’s is uniquely notable. It is epic in prose; elegaic for the most part, yet in certain of its nuances possessing a delicately lovely pastoral quality.
- F.L. Robbins, Outlook, 27 November 1929
- Unheralded by fanfare of advertisement, The Wet Flanders Plain emerges from the mass of War books as the most beautiful and the most terrible. Henry Williamson, the English prose writer and nature mystic, had revisited the scenes of his War years, and in a diary weaves the past and present into a series of scenes, pure and strange and deeply stirring.
- Harold King, Saturday Review of Literature, 21 December 1929
- The book is a series of vignettes, done with that delicate skill of which Mr. Williamson is master. It is deep and tender and moving, and will probably rank with the few really great books of the war.
Locate a copy
The Wet Flanders Plain, by Henry Williamson
London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1929
Dust jacket image courtesy of Great War Dust Jackets: http://www.greatwardustjackets.co.uk/.