The Somme was not what I expected it to be, but then even I did not know what I expected. It’s a strange thing, visiting a place one has only ever read about in the context of bloodshed, in the context of numbers (men lost, ground gained, grave references) and the idea of family. A strange land, one that is buried in words and ideas and statements but not actuality, not until that summer week.
It was hot, the week we drove through France. The weather granted everything a semi-lucid quality. The heat was uncomfortable, the sun at times glaring but then softened by the trees. The stone benches under the trees were warm against the backs of my legs. The grass itched against my calves when I sat before my great uncle’s gravestone. I didn’t say a great deal when I was there – not that it felt wrong, but it’s what felt right for me. Remembrance is different for everyone. For me; it was sitting on the grass with the paper-thin petals of a poppy in my hand (picked from the side of the road as we drove endlessly) and being there. My nana preferred to talk; to me, to my uncle, to her uncle. My uncle preferred to draw – I still have his work from that week; a collection of scratchy pen drawings that are now pinned up next to my mirror. They are stark and lovely and painful all at once.
I was somewhat unprepared for the fact that, driving through the Somme, one passes memorials and cemeteries every several hundred meters or so. We drove past the memorial to Indian soldiers at Neuve Chapelle when we first arrived in France. I stared and stared until it was out of sight. We never went back; though I will do one day. The further we drove into France, the more we saw. Areas of land, a little back from the road; crosses and headstones, gates slightly open. We grew quieter and quieter as we drove – there was nothing to say as the enormity of it all swallowed us up. Seeing numbers is one thing, seeing the land and what remains is another.
…dew drenched blossom, and the scent
Of summer gardens; these can bring you all
Those dreams that in the starlit silence fall:…
S.Sassoon – The Dream