Carpets of wood anemone and cowslips, hazel and birch (no old oaks or beech) with fistfuls of leaf, a barn owl shrieking in the moonlight, a water rat, many ducks and a great crested grebe on the river, blackthorn sprinkled like snow. Where is this? The Somme Battlefields. Unexploded ordnance can still be found in the woods: bullets, shrapnel balls, grenades, shells. Pockets of landscape still cratered or pocked, trenched or tunnelled, often wired off with notices saying not to enter. It feels like, and is, a dangerous place. Our landlady said you only have to dig a bit and you still find bones.
Out in the huge open fields, lots of hares and roe deer. Larks singing their heads off, just as the soldiers had said. Everywhere, on roadsides, in the middle of fields – small and large cemeteries of every nationality, white slabs of Portland stone for the British allies, white-ish crosses for the French, dark grey crosses for the Germans. In the bright sunshine they cast ranks of shadows. Apparently there are 2,000 graveyards. In the ones we visited there were so many unnamed graves.
The earth, being dry, is as hard as concrete. The River Somme is fairly green and runs slowly. A hundred years seems quite distant but one of my grandfathers was in the Artillery and another defended the Italian border. It wasn’t that long ago. I heard nothing about it from either of them.
Back home, I feel a huge sense of relief that Dartmoor does not fill me with a terrible overwhelming sadness at the sacrifices made … and the sobering thought of the little we’ve done with it. What might have happened to us all if we had done nothing? Would we, in this country, just be speaking German now? Would that matter if everyone had been kept alive and allowed to live out their years as they should, instead? Perhaps I am just ignorant of irresistible political forces like tectonic plates moving beneath us, and this is sheer sentimentality but I can’t stop wondering…what if? And what now? The second decade of at least the last two centuries has set the course for the century’s future, in Europe at least … might be worth thinking about …