How much does one imagine, how much observe? One can no more separate those functions than divide light from air, or wetness from water.
We’ve had a few days in Alsace.
I thought I’d be writing about wine and food and picturesque old towns with storks on towers.
But I find myself writing about a WWI battlefield. It seems appropriate for August 2014.
As Kiwis, our minds go to Passchendaele and the Somme when we think of the war in France. I lost a great uncle on the second day of the Fourth Army’s attack in the Somme in 1916 – though lost seems a strange word for something you never had. Equally strangely, when I think of Alfred William Ordish b. 1894 d. 16 Sept 1916, I find myself imagining an old man aging in pace with his brother, my grandfather. Yet he was only 22. “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old….”
But of course Alsace, bordering Germany and France and with more German than French place names, was fought over metre by bloodied metre.
We were staying at Trois Epis, up in the hills above Colmar, and not far from the battleground of the Collet du Linge. “It’s worth going to have a look, if it’s not raining” said Monsieur Diss the Manager of Hotel Restaurant l’Alexain, who absolutely defines the art of gracious hosting. So we drove through forests, and past monuments, to the memorialised part of the battleground.
In there, we were face to face with the small exhibits of personal effects, and relics of war. The sorrow, the horror, the desperation and the futility.
We moved from exhibit to exhibit, like other small knots of visitors – all French, I think. I found myself commenting in English, and hoping the others there could recognise the difference between Swiss-German and German-German conversation from our group.
The signs and explanatory material were all in French only: there was no sense that this place was intended as somewhere for both sides to come together to remember and try to understand.
A hundred years before, to the month, the Germans had moved in and dug in. For about six months, they’d fortified the top of this hill with stone-lined trenches, reinforced bunkers, protected artillery and machine-gun posts. Then in March 1915 the French started a counter-attack, fighting uphill, from scraped dirt trenches. The heaviest battles over the Linge Ridge peaks of Barrenkopf, the Schratzmännele, and the Collet du Linge were from July to October, with flamethrowers and gas attacks as well as gunnery. It all produced inconclusive gains and losses of territory – but the loss of some 10,000 French soldiers and 7,000 Germans.
The Germans stayed in control of the ridge until the end of the war.
So we walked through the conserved part of the battleground. The signs showed where the front lines had been from time to time – within a stone’s throw of each other – let alone a bullet’s range. The unevenness of the battle was clear in the unevenness of the terrain.
Some blasted tree trunks still stood, but whereas the rest of the ridge has been reforested, here the trees have remained cleared, and the bony structure of the land still releases the occasional skeletal remains of a soldier.
Small crosses mark where remains were uncovered during the conservation of the site, and signs warn of areas where there may yet be munitions.
And through the coiled barbed-wire and on the edges of the trenches, wild-flowers grow.
Tender blues and pinks against the blood-tang of rusted steel.
And the only word I could repeat was “why?”.
The strategic “why” was clear when you stood at the end of the ridge and saw how it commanded the valleys below. But the larger “why” remains ultimately unanswerable no matter how many histories one reads. Why leaders of nations should think that war is a solution – and why people should willingly or unwillingly throw their bodies into pursuing that..? (On this topic, the best thinking I’ve read so far is Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”. When you have a spare week, read it! )
But the hopeful thinker in me came away from that once-was-battleground still hopeful. If we can stand in these places and contemplate… If we can remind ourselves as we look at the current world conflicts, that once it happened here too… Perhaps that’s what such places are for.
To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.