Began my day in Longueval, at the South African memorial in Delville Wood. This is a really fine site for a number of reasons. The monument itself is impressive and there is a fine little museum/interpretive centre. But for my purposes the incredible contrast between the site as it is now, and the pictures of it taken during and after the fighting in late July, 1916 is the most interesting point. Today it is a gorgeous wood for walking: mature, lush, shady, and alive with birdsong. There is even a fine grid of broad turfed avenues that makes the whole wood accessible to virtually anyone. Beyond these green streets, however, vestiges of the conflict remain visible. Notwithstanding the luxuriant proliferation of brambles among the trees, shell holes and trench lines are still visible. Behind and to the left of the museum, one of these trench lines, along the South Africans’ general line of advance has been cleared of brush. It gives a very clear sense of how deeply the battle scarred the ground. Just across the avenue from the ‘beginning’ of this trench stands the only tree that survived the battle. That only one tree survived is testament enough to the violence of the battle. It’s a shocking thing to contemplate standing amid the thousands of trees in the wood, which is roughly the same size as it was before the battle. The tree itself, a hornbeam, seems healthy enough: the trunk is quite gnarled and pitted, but the foliage thick and green. This all comes home with even greater force on encountering the aforementioned pictures in the museum. The only evidence they provide of the ‘wood’ is a thin scattering of shattered stumps barely the height of a man. It will be interesting to dig into more archival materials in search of what soldiers’ thought of such destruction.
These same thoughts, on which I ended yesterday’s post too, came back to me repeatedly on my walks during the course of the day, particularly as I passed along the edge of the now private, High Wood. A quick glimpse over the barbed wire (utterly feeble by comparison to the original stuff) now guarding it told the same story: clear signs of shell holes and trench lines, with some huge water-filled mine craters in XX corner. It makes sense. Farmers would be willing to do the back-breaking work of filling trenches, shell-holes, dugouts etc in fields they wanted to return to cultivation. But who would have the time to do so in areas they planned to let return to woodland? The fascinating thing for me is how often they let the woods regrow on almost precisely the same ground – which is one reason visitors can still orient themselves on the battlefields. The landmarks used and destroyed during the great war have returned. I suppose it’s all of a piece with rebuilding roads, and villages, and buildings much as they had been before the war and it’s probably only the era and culture in which I’ve grown up that makes me even consider asking why more opportunities weren’t taken to ‘improve’ things. I’m sure those who returned would have been (rightfully) appalled at the suggestion.