“The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men;
and their story is not graven only on stone over
their clay, but abides everywhere, without visible
symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.”
The strongest memory I have of my first visit to the battlefields, some seven years ago now, is standing in the surviving Luke Copse, near the memorial to the Accrington Pals, reciting John William Streets’ ‘Matthew Copse’. It was a clear, cold September day, the sky was that incomparable shade of Somme-blue, and save for my trembling tones and skylarks in the distance, there was sheer silence. At the risk of sounding rather dramatic, that was, honestly, the trip that changed my life. Since then, my driving passion and career focus has been centred around the sites of the Great War and, although I’m by no means there yet, when you wake up every single morning, with the picture of somewhere in your mind’s eye, I’d say with certainty that it’s where you’re meant to be.
Upon visiting the Loos Memorial with a friend in April of last year, I introduced her to Charles Sorley, passed her one of my anthologies that I had brought with me, and asked her if she’d like to read ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ in front of his engraved name. She barely got four lines into the sonnet before her voice broke. For me, that recital of poetry—be it crisp, strong, muffled, or tear-filled—is a huge part of exploring the Western Front. After visiting a particular cemetery for the first time, someone might not be able to recall how many tombstones it holds or what dated battle it commemorates, but they will almost certainly remember how they felt upon reading The Soldier, at the side of an unknown warrior. I think that it’s one of the purest, most beautiful ways to connect with the fallen; you simply just have to let the words speak for themselves.
In dead men, breath.”
Of course, along with the poetry comes the stories and, naturally, we all have our favourite stories to tell. For me, one of the most special areas of the Somme is Serre. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, but there’s something about it that, emotionally, connects with me more deeply than other battlefield sites, and visually-speaking, the landscape is obviously stunning. Walking up the dusty track past the farmhouse, across the open fields, on a fresh, autumn day: absolutely perfect. Serre does, of course, have a close connection with my favourite war-poet, so I’m certain that contributes to at least a little of my love for the location. (Wilfred Owen was in the trenches at Serre in the early months of 1917 and it was here that the foundations of his well-known poem ‘The Sentry’—Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout / ‘I see your lights!’ But ours had long died out.—were formed, after a dug-out sentry was blinded in an attack.)
And so, part of my Serre pilgrimage is always to Serre Road Cemetery No. 1. For those a little less familiar with the site, it holds a little under 2,500 casualties, most of whom are unknown. Amongst the 698 men who have been identified, lie the Destrubé brothers. Charles was 27 and Paul was 26 when they were both killed on 17th February, 1917, whilst serving with the 22nd Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers. Their bodies were found entwined and they share a grave*. Here’s where May Wedderburn Cannan’s ‘Rouen’ was first introduced to me, about six years ago, and here’s where I’ve read it ever since; it’s become part of the pilgrimage. Visiting the brothers and acknowledging their history has, become something of an observance when I’m in Serre (alongside my continual new discoveries, of course), and I find it both deeply poignant and immensely comforting. I suppose—and this is how I’ve always defined my trips to the battlefields—it feels a little bit like coming home.
*Charles and Paul are buried together in PLOT 4, ROW C.