The scenes commemorating the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as Passchendaele, are familiar ones. Heads of State, Royalty, the Last Post, row upon row of graves, the Menin Gate, descendants of the dead, a fly past, wreaths and poppies have all been involved – and rightly so. We bring to such an anniversary all the powers of solemnity, seriousness and ritual that we can muster.
As with all World War I commemmorations the numbers of dead and wounded baffle rather than illuminate, but one of the thoughts these events have prompted for me concerns the survivors of the slaughter and the permanent mental damage they carried with them. That so many survived and were somehow able to function in life after the war strikes me as a minor, or not so minor, miracle.
One combatant who suffered mental torment after the war was the Gloucestershire poet, Ivor Gurney. In some of his poems, he referred lovingly to the landscape (‘On Severn-side’) that he had left behind and in the trenches was seized by what he called ‘a hot heart desire’ for his home terrain.
In the 1920s he had a more or less complete mental collapse and his family had to place him reluctantly in an asylum first in Gloucester and then in Dartford.
A friend visited him in Dartford and found his madness so acute that he was unable to communicate with her. The next time she visited him, however, she took with her an Ordnance Survey map of the Gloucestershire landscape through which her husband and Gurney had both walked before the war. On seeing the map, Gurney seized it and the two of them studied it on the floor of the asylum, Gurney tracing with his fingers the walks that he and her late husband had made together. Gurney was reconnected with the land itself and able to revisit his beloved home and find himself restored to some kind of lucidity.
It is the power of the land that is so striking about this story and the identity and rootedness that it provides.
We know for ourselves do we not, the way that maps encourage us to locate ourselves; whether it’s on a street map or a map of a much larger area, we wish to know where we fit in and where we belong. We look for our home and when we find it we feel reassured.
Such reassurance is encouraging for us; for the survivors of Passchendaele it may have been a matter of much greater import, a route towards sanity rather than collapse. The start of a journey home.