Wrapping up the "War Poets" tour, and how much it touched me
When you visit some places the “magic” is gone. You just see a pile of rocks or other remnants. Tour guides can bring them alive, as can photographs (especially when colourized I might add). I’m happy you were able to experience the places the way you did. I’m sure it will inform your art.
A great friend of mine, illustrator and reporter Richard Johnson was embedded with my team in Afghanistan for a bit. I had asked if I could get sketches of each of my guys, and supplied photos. The photos weren’t enough, he had to know who they were. It was a profound insight that he wasn’t reproducing images, he was reproducing the person. I feel this is very much what you do.
I’ve toured a number of first and Second World War battlefields in France and Flanders, and it was Dieppe, the sight of a disastrous raid by the Canadian Army in 1942, that affected me the most. Visiting the beach at Puys, looking up at the sea wall and commanding cliffs either side brought tears to my eyes. Armed with a photograph of that day, showing soldiers piled up at the sea wall, I could feel a little bit of the despair they must have felt. The impossibility of the task, to scramble up the loose shingle, no place to hide, and no way to breach the dense tangle of bared wire that waited for you if you did make it up the beach.
I hope you were able to see the Vimy memorial as well. Very awe inspiring and haunting.
Hi Marina - what a marvellously moving piece. I have not done a battlefield tour (my grandfather did 'tour' them for three years before receiving in 1917 a very serious, but fortunately for me, not fatal wound. I have holidayed in Normandy and it's impossible to travel very far without coming across clusters of graves of what were combatants on different sides now sharing the same ground. It moved me much as did my visit to the Normandy American Cemetery. As I stood on the cliffs overlooking Gold Beach at Arromanches I looked upon the sweep of shimmering sand and wondered how any who ran up it survived that first onslaught. I cannot imagine the feelings of those men. Leaping into the shallows then a lung bursting run to cover with bullets fizzing and whizzing death all around. I'm glad the grandiose remnants of the Mulberry Harbours are left to remind us we must never forget save we might repeat. I'll offer some words of Edward Thomas from his poem 'Lights Out'. Not as well known as the other 'War Poets' and dear friend of Robert Frost who wrote 'The Road not Taken' as a leg-pull of his friend as whenever the two went walking in England, Thomas, so keen to show Frost the beauty of the countryside, was never sure which was the best path. Thomas was killed in action four months after writing 'Lights Out'...
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose....
Our youngest teen was forever changed by visiting Pearl Harbor and Normandy. As expected for a 14 yo girl, Hawaii was all about beaches and snorkeling etc. At Pearl, we witnessed the sea burial of one of the last survivors of the Arizona. As we silently witnessed his urn lowered into the Arizona, the sense he was joining his comrades and how few survived was overwhelming. It become not a “ moms history fix” but the reality she was witnessing the life of a human being with a family by his side, which all the thousands who perished there had as well. Four years later (older and in college), Normandy was a holy moment. My father, her grandfather’s 5th Armored Division landed in 2 weeks after DDay. It was real and it was personal and her perception and understanding of war, the horror, the bravery, and how war changes a man or woman for better or worse. My dad did not glory in his war experience, he despised it to the depth of his soul. He did his duty but became a man dedicated to peace,. He didn’t write poems but he taught teen boys woodworking and metallurgy for decades. During pandemic cleaning purge, we found his letters to my mom starting in 1943 through telegram in June 45 of his arrival in NY and the train he would arrive back in St. louis.
Take your children and grandchildren/ they learn through the physical experience as you describe more than we realize.
I had a very similar experience walking through the cemetery at Gettysburg. All the graves that had no names, just a state regiment or even just a state effected my emotions a lot more than I thought a 150 year old grave would. Just looking at the fields these soldiers marched across to certain doom gives me goosebumps to this day. Great articles, I really enjoyed this series
As a young woman I visited France and saw the area where my great uncle was gassed. I never knew him (he was older than my grandfather, and although he survived the war, he was permanently disabled and died young.)
It's always awesome read your experiences, Marina. We can see and feel the same as you felt when you were there. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for your job.
It’s definitely worth it. Not just the memorial but the tunnels underneath carved from the chalk. And they’ve preserved graffiti and art carved into the walls by soldiers as they waited for orders to go over the top. The magic is very much still there.