A NEW HARVEST OF GREATNESS FROM FIELDS OF FLANDERS
It may sound like a bold claim, but as we approach the centenary of the Armistice CHARLIE CONNELLY finds a new work that deserves to sit alongside the greatest poetry inspired by the First World War
They call it the ‘iron harvest’. Every year when the farmers of Flanders set out to plough their fields there’s a regular clunk and tap under the blades to signify the latest annual surfacing of metallic detritus. Bullet casings, shell fragments, barbed wire, bits of helmet, mess tins; a muddy churning of the rusted orange and lesioned remnants of the attritional war that embedded itself in the flat plains of the Franco-belgian countryside a hundred years ago.
I’ve seen for myself the little piles of metal the farmers collect at the edges of their fields, at once an irritating agricultural inconvenience but also a poignant reminder of exactly what happened there a century past.
The poet Rob Hindle visited Flanders with his father last winter, tracing the footsteps of his great-grandfather Private Albert Brown of the York and Lancaster Regiment right up to his death in February 1917. The evocative location and stories of the iron harvest gave him much to ponder, especially when he learned that the ploughs don’t just turn up items from the Great War, they also unearth detritus from the Napoleonic Wars and sometimes even the Hundred Years War’, a conflict that spanned the 14th and 15th centuries.
Returning home, Hindle poured out his thoughts and feelings in a poetic narrative he called The Grail Roads, just published in a beautiful edition by the small but consistently excellent Longbarrow Press.
As the centenary of the Armistice approaches it takes a brave poet to release a collection dedicated to the First World War. For one thing there will be any number of books whumping into bookshop delivery bays for this last literary hurrah before publishers decide people have had enough of the First
World War for a while. For another, if there’s one area of poetry that’s practically sacred ground it’s the poetry of the Great War.
Documentaries, memorial services, anthologies: the war poets are going to be ubiquitous as we approach November 11. With good reason too as the Great War produced some of the greatest verse in the English language, which is exactly why it’s an almost impossible act to follow.
It would take two things to make a new Great War-related poetry collection stand on its own two feet. One, a fresh and innovative approach to the subject, two, the poetry itself would have to be really, startlingly good. Fortunately, with The Grail Roads Rob Hindle has ticked both boxes.
The many layers of war detritus being churned up by the plough every year gave Hindle an idea. The battles that have heaved back and forth across northern France and Belgium from Crécy onwards are separated by centuries but united by the common experiences of the participants.
He thought about the sixth book of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’arthur in which the Arthurian knights of legend set off to find the Holy Grail, recalled how the Malory scholar Eugène Vinaver was convinced Malory himself had fought in the Hundred Years’ War – and hence possibly those same Flanders fields – and took the bold step of inserting the mythical Grail knights into the Western Front.
It was a risky prospect and one that in less sensitive hands could have backfired wildly to produce a clunking, clumsy attempt to lay one strand of history onto another. Instead The Grail Roads is a beautiful piece of work, a masterpiece, a book that quite possibly deserves to stand alongside the works of Owen, Sassoon and the rest when in future years the poetry of the First World War is gathered together.
Of Malory’s original work Hindle has written, “The narrative, unwieldy as it often seems (ellipses and non-sequiturs abound), can be summarised around a basic theme: the attempt to resurrect the national unity of a once-great polity in the face of fading influence and factionalism”. Sound familiar? The contemporary resonance is subtle but lends extra depth to a work that scarcely needs it.
This sense of a military continuum, of soldiers fighting the same battles over and over again while their armoury progresses from the halberd to the Heinkel, of the same mistakes being made and the same lessons ignored, is what makes The Grail Road such a powerful and poignant read. Bors, Gawain, Launcelot, Percivale and the rest slot so easily into the narrative of the Western Front you almost forget they are centuries out of time. These mythical heroes, key founders of an enduring national story, never seem remotely bolted on to the 20th century, successfully pulling off a tacit but accomplished nod to the heroism of ordinary men like
Albert Brown of the York and Lancaster Regiment.
The book follows the chronology of the First World War from the first flurry of enlistments to the return of soldiers after the Armistice. At the start of the book Gawain, for example, “comes straight in off the night shift, eyes livid in the hall’s gloom. The sergeant is putting up posters”.
We follow them across the Channel. Bors, who in Malory’s tale is one of the knights who achieves the Grail, notes how “the dead water shines like melted wax” while squeezed into a ship with the “crush of packs and greatcoats” where: Men are sour with sweat but many are shaking as they stare into the sea.
Bors, eyes shut, sees St George’s Cross on a flag, its red raw and swollen against the white.
The Grail Roads doesn’t just keep us ankle deep in the mud and horror of the trenches. We’re in rural England as the nation’s horses are requisitioned for service at the front. We see the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps pause in their maintenance of the cemetery at Abbeville as Launcelot passes on horseback, the wheels of their flower-filled barrows halting briefly between freshly-dug graves.
We’re at home with soldiers on leave:
Up on the moor line the burning heather smokes and flares.
Men will be patched up, sent back; some, maimed or blind or mad will stay: will empty themselves with every cough or dropped cup.
We’re back in the Middle Ages with the tapestry makers of Flanders.
Their knights flowed into battle smiling and glib: even the dead ones beamed,” we learn, but of course war is never like this because “here and in every war it is cheating and slashing and tearing at eyes and bellies; it is whelps in a corner spitting and shaking, terrified, dumb.
At Amiens we’re with Gawain watching fellow soldiers relieved from the front resting and smoking in Place Parmentier near the cathedral. “Arms and shoulders shake; heads jump; voices hum and mutter; one shouts, not at his pals or anything here, but in some place where his life was, where his people are.”
We’re in the éstaminets, the bars where the soldiers can let off steam and woo local girls. One woman notices a soldier who looks no more than 16 entering nervously and taking a seat, “the ghost of his mother following”. She knows he’s doomed, “too innocent for a world of slow grief ”.
One of the strengths of The Grail Road
is Hindle’s evocation of time, place and atmosphere through half-noticed incidents like these. Many of the poems here are concerned with events and scenarios that are almost tributaries of the war, time-stilled moments occurring away from the guns and trenches yet still dominated by horrors and injustice. His style is vivid, sparse and unpretentious; there’s not a single spare word in the book and it’s a rare talent to evoke so much through so little. There’s a particularly heartbreaking account of a man shot for cowardice that both conjures the scene and puts us inside the man’s head in just 16 short, emotionallytaut lines.
There are poems in the style of Ted Hughes and Edward Thomas – the book closes with an exquisite homage to
Adlestrop, another brave move, again a wholly successful one – and Hindle riffs brilliantly off quotations from David Jones and Wilfred Owen, all the while creating images that stay with the reader long after finishing the book. The soldier talking to a chaplain, for example, reliving the dreadful things he’s seen and demonstrating how he’s become inured to the horror as he:
Channels a trench walled with bones: some mark the way in darkness, others make useful handles through a mire.
There aren’t many poetry books that benefit from being read in one sitting – most poetry is best consumed in small doses, reflected upon and considered – but I genuinely couldn’t put this book down. The poems move between places, topics and sometimes even eras, but the reader is pulled along by Hindle’s extraordinary gift for vivid, concise empathy.
This is a book that I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s a perfect meditative companion to the forthcoming Armistice commemoration, it should be on every school syllabus and it should be presented to every politician who might consider sending a nation to war or even employing its rhetoric in international political discourse. Underpinning the beauty of these poems is the tangible frustration that lessons are never learned.
As Hindle himself says in a prose afterword, “the current rise of populist demagoguery and vicious nationalism across the West is but another, depressingly familiar tide, made possible by the limitations of human memory: those with direct experience of Western war grow old or are dead – so we are stirred by bugles more than we are appalled by horror, or feel it as physical fear”.
For all that the iron harvest will go on, the Flanders earth throwing up its rusty relics from the strata of history in an eloquent representation of the corrosion of memory.
ORDINARY HEROES: British troops on the Western Front during the First World War