Afterword: some Whys and Wherefores

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ 1

The preceding four chapters are based essentially upon my visits to a variety of military sites and former battlegrounds in Western Europe. It is part history and part commentary. My progress through the centuries has been rather cavalier and makes two leaps within a period of two millennia, that is, from Roman times to the world of medieval France and thence to the Great War, later to be numbered as the First World War. Such grasshopping through time seems reasonable to me as this is not all that long really, merely about eighty generations of human existence. As one ages, there is a tendency for time to collapse upon itself like a closing telescope.

After frequent enquiry, I have found that the average British reader has either limited or no knowledge of the first three subjects:

  1. The remarkable frontier (limes) of the Roman Empire that was established in the primeval forests of Germany
    •  … Arminius (leader of German tribes),
    • George Grundy (tutor at Oxford University),
    • Bernd Rosemeyer (motor racing champion).
  2. A bicycle tour in 1908 of provincial France and study of fortified châteaux by a teenage T.E.Lawrence (of Arabia)
    • … T.E.Lawrence (leader of the Arab Revolt),
    • Viollet-le-Duc (French architect and medievalist),
    • King Richard the Lionheart (castle builder).
  3. The crucial contribution of the American Expeditionary Force to final victory on the Western Front in World War I and its blooding at Belleau Wood (1918)
    • … George Marshall (US General),
    • two soldier sons of US President ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt,
    • Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

Each of these entries carries the names of individuals, military and civilian, who find a place in the first three chapters of my narrative. A fourth chapter examines, very selectively, London’s bronze war memorials and characteristics of some Allied, American and German military cemeteries in northern France and Belgium (World War I).  

        Over these two millennia the landscape of Western Europe has been witness to a remarkable variety of military activities and movements. Any modern traveller is likely to encounter some reminder of Europe’s military past, even if it is only an isolated name on a signpost or a glimpse of a decaying castle. Inevitably places and battlefields have changed with time. On revisiting the field of Waterloo, not long after his greatest victory, the Duke of Wellington memorably exclaimed ‘They have ruined my battlefield!’.  Erection of a great lion-topped mound on the Mont St. Jean plateau by Belgian peasants in honour of the Prince of Orange had consumed the sunken roads and steep inclines, once at the centre of the British front, legendary features of deadly memory. Urban sprawl, new roads, clearance of trees, et cetera often make it difficult for the visitor to visualize the original landscape of a battle site. Fortunately, there are exceptions: for instance, the surrounds of Belleau Wood in France seem to have altered little since 1918. Sadly, the previous year saw the wanton destruction of the thirteenth century castle keep at Coucy-le-Château, the largest and finest in all Christendom.

        Topography has had a strong influence upon my choice of military site: the truth of the tactical maxim ‘Take the high ground!’ is relevant to all of them. Thus I have been drawn to places like the reconstructed Roman fort of the Saalburg in the Taunus mountains, medieval Château-Gaillard perched high above the Seine, the heights above Verdun and the slight but deadly elevation of Belleau Wood.  Old battle sites, once vortices of violent action and release of energy, often seem to share a strangely quiet and unsettling atmosphere. I accept that this may be just a matter of imagination.  

        The seeds for an interest in military matters were sown when I was a boy in the 1930s. Europeans still lived in the dark shadow of the Great War of 1914-18. Each November brought monochrome newsreel images of the long columns of ex-service men marching past the Cenotaph memorial in London; usually, it seemed to me, in drizzling rain. More specifically, I can recall my older brother taking me to the old Imperial War Museum, then in Kensington. I was able to peer through a submarine periscope at night-time traffic on the road outside and to manipulate a sanitized three-dimensional model of a typical trench system of the Western Front. Hanging there was the poignant painting of a string of blinded British ‘Tommies’, each with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front.2 Hollywood’s interpretations of warfare inevitably had their influence, be it in France (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’:1930), the Near East (‘The Crusades’:1935), Imperial India (‘Lives of a Bengal Lancer’:1935 )  or with la Légion in the  deserts of North Africa (‘Beau Geste’:1939).                                                                                  

        Whilst finalizing the four chapters of this book, I naturally came to wonder why I had been drawn to particular periods of history. Interest in the Roman army would seems to date from a colourful wooden jigsaw, a boyhood present, which portrayed Constantine being proclaimed Emperor at the legion fortress of Eboracum (York) in AD 306. I remember being greatly impressed by the proud stalwart with lion skin headgear who bore the eagle standard. Like many small boys of the time, I collected hollow-cast model soldiers, often bought at Woolworth stores. Later, browsing in prestigious London stores, I discovered and was fascinated by the larger Hausser-Elastolin models of Roman legionaries, forts, chariots, catapults, siege towers and impedimenta, imports from Germany. Just after World War II, I was enthralled by a rare showing of the classic silent film ‘Ben-Hur’ (1925). With Ramón Novarro in the lead role, its sea battle and chariot race can compare in power and splendour with those in the epic MGM version of 1959.

        My awareness of the medieval age probably began with family trips to English and Welsh castles. It was inevitable that Hollywood’s fascination with Europe’s lurid history during the Middle Ages would add zest and flavour to my juvenile understanding. Early interest in Lawrence of Arabia is easy to explain as my father served in Egypt in the Army Service Corps and the Royal Air Force during the later stages of the Great War of 1914-18. As a consequence I was long familiar with his photographs of captured Turkish guns and planes, convoys of Model-T Ford trucks heading across the desert toward Siwa oasis, postcards with street scenes  of Alexandria and Ismailia and his account of exuberant Anzac soldiers hurling a piano from an upstairs window of the famed Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo.3 In time I would become aware of Lawrence’s pre-war achievements as an undergraduate student of medieval fortresses.

        Interest in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) of 1917-18 began when I chanced upon an old but highly informative American guide book to the battlefields of the former Western Front in the Cinema bookshop at Hay-on-Wye.4 In Britain, interest in the Western Front battlefields of the First World War still persists but tends to focus, naturally enough, on the northern sectors where British and Commonwealth troops were engaged; knowledge of the activities of the large French and American armies in that world-changing conflict tends to be sketchy. Having said that, certain place names in their sectors still resonate down the years e.g. Verdun, Chemin des Dames, Château-Thierry, Belleau Wood and the Argonne forest. So far as the AEF is concerned, I believe that this ‘blind spot’ largely stems from the fact that, in contrast to the Second World War, a high proportion of American troops was shipped directly into base ports on the Atlantic coast of France.

        The final chapter touches on the sombre subject of remembering the soldiers, friend and foe, who died during the two World Wars. Each year thousands of visitors wander among the ordered ranks of graves in the numerous military cemeteries of Belgium and France: after the First World War, Rudyard Kipling referred to the larger of them as ‘silent cities’. Inevitably, reactions of individuals to these reminders of the indiscriminate horrors of war vary, with feelings ranging from sadness to anger. Many people, adults and children, visit them as an act of remembrance and pilgrimage. It is a strange fact that many visitors, even the bereaved, have found them to be settings of peace and comfort. Undoubtedly, they serve to put one’s own life and times into perspective.

With professional historians and students in mind, I have striven for historical accuracy. I gratefully acknowledge the part that second-hand book shops have played as a background to this book. Like others, I have begun to suspect that each old book of quality generates a force field as it sits on a shelf in these quiet watering-holes … waiting, flexing its ley lines. Not once, but several times, I have gone unerringly to a long-sought ‘find’. It is all rather irrational, even unsettling. Many of these ‘silent friends’ now find second homes as footnotes to my accounts. They range from authoritative texts to lesser known works that might intrigue those who like to open strange doors and wander off into the back roads and hinterland of European history.

Ray Bishop

                                                                                                               

1 L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between,  Prologue (1953).

  2 The famous oil painting Gassed (1918) by John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925), an expatriate American artist, still hangs in the Imperial War Museum, London.

  3 Anzac is an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

  4 E.B. Garey, O.O. Ellis and R.V.D. Magoffin, American Guide Book to France and its Battlefields (New York: The MacMillan Co. 1920).