“No blood, no bodies, no screams, no explosions, just silence and a heavy lingering atmosphere, a sense of profound loss, an inescapable sadness that still haunts this part of Picardy in Northern France where my grandfather was killed in the last days of the war. In these images I traced the movements of his battalion as they edged towards their doom.”
Much has been written about remembrance and memorial, as well as environmental and collective memory and visual artists often reach for such words to describe their work. So with these terms so well-used and yet so very relevant, it was with some trepidation that I ventured into this project: to try and throw some light on the circumstances and the location of my grandfather’s fatal wounding in the last few weeks of World War 1. This was indeed an act of remembrance, a search for a broken connection, an attempt at a practical demonstration of how landscape can hold memory, even if it meant invoking the terminology I sometimes regard with suspicion.
I knew there would be nothing to see, this is not an area that has had battlefield features preserved as a living memorial and decades of arable farming methods have wiped the slate clean apart from the lovingly tended cemeteries which honour the war dead and perhaps act as a substitute for actual memory. But with so much blood mingled with so much mud, I was sure the landscape would still speak of the horrors and hoped I might even hear a whisper to guide me to the place that witnessed his demise, or at least I could imagine so. Surely the very soil held a recollection of the horrors inflicted upon it but perhaps a camera is an inadequate tool to tune in to the uneasy subterranean murmur ? The words the wartime poet Wilfred Owen, also from Oswestry in Shropshire and who died very nearby and at almost the same time, resonated as I trudged across the hilltops near Joncourt, phrases formed by the trauma he experienced. No more the “shrill demented choirs of wailing shells…” the fields here were eerily silent or perhaps the ground whispered a language I was ill-equipped to understand.
My interest in all this is to try and forge some form of connection with the past, to understand the broken link the family had felt for many years after and perhaps to revitalise his memory for present and future generations of our family. A large part of my grandfather was transferred to my father as two ships passing in the night, my father was born just a few months before his own father died. The two William Wasney Heseltines never laid eyes upon one another, but they looked identical, especially in their uniforms from respective wars, but more than that I know that their temperament and personal traits were shared. Born in 1886, my grandfather held the same Victorian values that I remember in my very strict grandmother and which were continued by my father, but both blended this with an infectious sense of humour. Left without a father the son worked hard to do credit to his mother and excelled with his studies as well as at his contribution to the second world war where he served in the bomb disposal squad: ironically my grandfather’s job was to help send shells towards the Germans while two decades later it was my father’s task to make safe German ordnance. He never spoke of his own father, he possessed his war medals but knew little of the circumstances of his death and never visited his grave on the edge of Rouen. For me, another Wasney Heseltine, I have more sentimentality, more of a preoccupation with history as well as the luxury of time to carry out personal research. Part of my decision to settle in France a few years ago was connected with this story and the advent of the internet made it possible to trace the location of the cemetery at St Sever near Rouen and to track his artillery garrison as it edged towards it doom across the muddy fields of Picardy in the autumn of 1918.
The scant information I could glean online indicated than during October 1918 the 284th Siege Battery were under 83rd Brigade and on October 9th were in support of operations by 6th Division and 46th Division for the capture of Fresnoy Le Grand and the occupation of Bohain. At the time of my grandfather’s fatal wounding they were reconnoitring new positions and pushing their heavy 6 inch Howitzer guns forward coming into action on the southern outskirts of Montbrehain, a small village to the east of the Hindenburg and Beaurevoir defences. I began my journey north of Saint-Quentin having marked a route to include all these places all the while trying to imagine what the area looked like nearly 100 years ago. Even with copies of WW1 military maps I had been unable to research the precise path of his particular unit, so I resorted to visiting one lonely small cemetery after another scouring the small collection of windy hilltop gravestones to find casualties belonging to the 284th Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery in an attempt to track their progress by the the numbers of the dead left in their wake. According to his war record, my grandfather was gassed on October 9th on the road to Montbrehain and died eleven days later. My grandmother told the family that she sensed the very moment he died and involuntarily called out his name.
Although there is little to actually see now but there is plenty to feel, ghosts are everywhere. The Aisne landscape is essentially the same albeit without the ghastly war torn character that is so familiar in the contemporary photographs of splintered trees, the soup of sodden earth, mangled horses, bodies and blood that constituted the uncertain ground. Instead the marks left by tractors have replaced those of tanks and the ghostly November light illuminated endless piles of beet standing in the mist and everywhere the same terrible mud, the same sticky clay that smeared both footsteps and the beet. These sinister arable trophies were everywhere stacked up like skulls and bones exhumed from the mass grave that still offered up the dead a century later. I had hoped to consecrate a small but very precise part of this landscape to my memory but this was not possible as I could not be truly certain of what happened and where, instead the impression that has been made is more general, even if his fight to the death seemed to give a certainty to the fields that consumed him. Was my coming to this part of France some sort of expiation for my grandfather’s death, some continuity, familiarity, recognition or understanding ? By making my home further southwest in France I had already felt I was joining my grandfather and was acting on the words engraved on his tombstone, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die”.
©John Heseltine 2012-17