On the 100th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, we share the final instalment in our commemorative series of poignant poems, kindly provided by the Scottish Poetry Library. Predicting the coming waves of war tourism, poet J.E. Stewart indicates that the prospect of people visiting the battlefields feels too intrusive. But 100 years later, we do, and should, still visit the fields of battle in order never to forget what happened there.
The Scottish Commemorations Panel is grateful to Lizzie MacGregor, assistant librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library for providing advice and background materials for this series of poems commemorating WWI and, in particular the Battle of the Somme. You can read more about the Scottish Poetry Library here.
On Revisiting the Somme
If I were but a Journalist,
And had a heading every day
In double-column caps, I wist
I, too, could make it pay;
But still for me the shadow lies
Of tragedy. I cannot write
Of these so many Calvaries
As of a pageant fight;
For dead men look me through and through
With their blind eyes, and mutely cry
My name, as I were one they knew
In that red-rimmed July;
Others on new sensation bent
Will wander here, with some glib guide
Of secrets we would hide –
Hide in this battered crumbling line
Hide in these promiscuous graves,
Till one shall make our story shine
In the fierce light it craves.
J. E. Stewart
Battlefield tourism began even before the war had ended. Michelin published a collection of illustrated guides to the battle sites in 1917, though in fact, determined individuals had been making their own way to view the grim sites of the front since 1914. As soon as hostilities ceased wealthier people arrived in their chauffeur-driven automobiles, and tourism took off in earnest in 1919 when Thomas Cook commenced organised tours.
People also came to see where their men had fallen, and to visit the graves of their dead. Since all military burials took place on foreign soil, there was no chance for the British bereaved to have the closure, as we would now say, of a funeral, and many families made the trip to Belgium or France to say a final farewell. Pilgrimages to cemeteries were organised by societies such as the British Legion from 1919 onwards to assist the less well-off.
Whatever the motive, the tide of visitors to the dreadful sites of the First World War started very early, and has never stopped. J. E. Stewart’s poem is disparaging of those who visit with their ‘glib guides’ – making those of us who have done the tours, stared at the fields of Flanders and traipsed through the cemeteries squirm with a sense of having intruded upon the inexplicable mysteries of war and sacrifice.
Veterans too were drawn back to the arena of their earlier struggles. It is possible that Stewart returned to the Somme early in 1918 (he was killed in April). His battalion, the 8th Border Regiment, had been in front line trenches south of Thiepval on the 2nd of July, was at Beaumont Hamel, and in October Stewart commanded a company during an attack on Pozières Ridge. (He was awarded the Military Cross in the New Year’s Honours of 1917.)
Stewart wrote two poems under the title ‘Revisiting the Somme’. The first begins ‘Silence befits me here’, and is a quiet remembrance of his friends. The second, sometimes known as ‘The Fierce Light’, is in a very different tone, anguished and angry, and already wary of the simplification, the sensationalising of the war he seems to predict will come.
Perhaps, though it seems contrary, what we should take from his poem is that we should continue to visit the battlefields and the graveyards; that we should never cease in our efforts to understand the war, and never stop trying to show it in that fierce light.