When History Speaks Directly to You
Wrapping up the "War Poets" tour, and how much it touched me
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Over the last few weeks, I've been exploring the words and the worlds of war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, and have been giving you little glimpses of my journey with the War Poets tour in France, visiting the battlefields that inspired so many powerful writings during the wars. Now that the tour is over, let me tell you: it was a more profound experience than I had ever anticipated.
“Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.” - Siegfried Sassoon
Our tour started with the hauntingly peaceful Mametz Wood. These woods witnessed some of the most intense fighting during the Battle of the Somme. As we walked through, the very ground beneath our feet echoed with memories of the fierce battle that took place in this territory in 1916, during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. At that time, this large wooden area was heavily defended by German troops. Machine guns were strategically hidden in the woodland, pointing at the open field right across, ready for a massacre. Although the Germans were eventually defeated, this conflict resulted, for the British troops alone, in nearly 4,000 people either dead or wounded—400 of them in the first day. Being aware of that is something that causes a strange physical sensation, almost as if you were touching history itself. These stories are no longer distant and abstract. They are now surrounding you.
“Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'“
This sensation was heightened by the thought that these woods had been trodden upon by Siegfried Sassoon himself, who took part in the bloody battle. Robert Graves also was there, as he once recorded and described: “It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.”
Standing at Mametz, you can almost hear the cries and commands of the soldiers who once populated these fields.
Another iconic WWI location that we visited is High Wood, the place where Robert Graves was gravely wounded by a German shell on July 20, 1916. When recording the incident, he said that he 'felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder blades'. In fact, it was after this that Graves was mistakenly declared dead, which prompted his commanding officer to write a condolence letter to deliver the news to his devastated parents.
As was true with all the other places we visited, the vastness and quietude of this gorgeous landscape contrasted starkly with the violent history it held.
Despite multiple attempts by the British forces to capture High Wood in the summer of 1916, it wasn't until September that they finally secured it, by which time it was hardly a wood, rather a scarred, shattered wasteland.
“Some say God caught them even before they fell.” - Wilfred Owen
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is a powerful and haunting tribute to those WW1 soldiers whose bodies were never found and recovered. The vastness of the memorial, with several names etched on its walls without end, served as a humbling reminder of the enormous human cost of war. And thinking about those many soldiers who were simply lost in the mud or God knows where sends shivers down my spine.
Just try to imagine the immeasurable pain and uncertainty families must have felt, never truly knowing the fate of their loved ones.
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.” - John McCrae
Our journey through the graveyards - and we visited many of them - was one of the most profound aspects of the tour. I wasn't expecting it to affect me so deeply.
The World War I graveyards, while deeply moving, had a noticeable absence of personal messages. As explained by Paul Reed, our brilliant tour guide, this was a result of families having to bear the cost of engraving personal inscriptions, making the personal touch a luxury few could afford. World War II graves, however, were different. Thanks to a shift in policy where the government bore the cost of inscriptions, each headstone tells a story not just of the fallen soldier, but also of the grieving families they left behind. These few words captured vulnerability, pain and love while reflecting the hopes and dreams of those whose lives were tragically cut short. How can someone summarize a lifetime of cherished memories in a single line?
Walking into a war cemetery for the first time is an overwhelming experience. The sheer vastness of some of them, with graves stretching farther than the eyes can see, is a striking and overwhelming sight. I spent countless minutes wandering among them, pausing to read as many inscriptions as I could. While I was doing that, I was also thinking of those of you who, unfortunately, will never have the chance to experience this firsthand. But, if you can, I highly encourage you to do so, and the War Poets tour is the perfect way to begin.
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I took several photographs of the phrases and messages that struck me the most, and I'd like to share a few of these images here. How many final thoughts, encapsulated in these epitaphs, were of home?
Lieutenant Herbert Denham Brotheridge is often considered to be the first Allied soldier to be killed in action on D-Day. He was just 28 years old.
Dog handler Emile Corteil was 19 at the time he parachuted in Normandy with his 'para dog' Glen. Unfortunately, the pair was killed by an Allied air fire. They are buried together at Ranville Commonwealth War Cemetery. *picture me sobbing*
Wilfred Owen's grave
After visiting the trenches at Beaumont Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment tragically lost over 700 out of the 800 soldiers who participated in a battle there on July 1, 1916, we changed gears from World War I to World War II and continued our tour heading to Normandy. I was eagerly anticipating this part of the journey, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotions that engulfed me as I stepped onto Omaha Beach.
Over 4,414 Allied soldiers died on D-Day. Omaha was the most brutal, where close to 2,400 Americans fell in a single day. Standing there, could the sand beneath my feet still hold memories of that day? I must confess that I looked around and grabbed a small pebble to take home with me.
Despite its terrible story, Omaha is a beautiful beach where children now build sandcastles, families picnic, and life goes on. And as Paul put it, isn't this what those brave souls fought for? A world where future generations wouldn't know the horrors of war, but the joys of peace?
In total, it is estimated that over 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the ensuing Battle of Normandy.
“Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.” - Keith Douglas
Sassoon's, Owen's, and Graves’ are just a few names among those of several other people who used poetry as a way to cope and express their feelings in such extreme circumstances. Their personal narratives and poignant writings have allowed us to glimpse into the profound emotions evoked by the wars that reshaped our world. From Sassoon's haunting words "Have you forgotten yet?..." to Owen's stark portrayal of "What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns" their verses provide a raw and vivid depiction of the heartbreak and chaos experienced by an entire generation. Through their poetic expressions, we hear the voices of young men trapped in the turmoil of conflict, vividly capturing a time when dreams were shattered and futures were unknown.
To me, this entire journey has been a deeply transformative experience. There is an unmatched magic in standing where history happened, places I had only seen in faded photographs or grainy videos. To touch the walls, feel the earth beneath my feet, and breathe the air where poets once stood and soldiers once fought is truly surreal. It was like stepping into pages from a book I have read countless times before, yet with each reading discovering new layers of the same story.
So, for all that, a huge shout-out to Paul Reed for making history come alive with his stories and insights (it's almost scary how much he knows about every bit of the places we visited), and to Leger Battlefields for these unforgettable days. I hope you all have the opportunity to join the next groups of the War Poets tour.
As I wrap up this journey, I'm curious about how these stories have resonated with you. Have you ever embarked on a history tour like this one I just did?
Dive into the comments, and let's chat!