With the imminent ‘Poppy Day’ commemorations in Britain remembering the Armed Forces battle-deaths over the last century, come deeply woven images of ‘foreign fields’.
While these ‘fields’ are the final resting-place of the dead or battlefields away from home, these ‘fields’ also provide the images of ‘nature in war’ which are so central to the narrative of war.
Though the writers and painters of the First World War are especially celebrated for their depiction of battle fusing with the Nature of the battlefield and the geophysical conditions, less well known are the Second World War contributions.
The ‘extrospective’ style of Keith Douglas, who fought in tanks in North Africa and was killed in France soon after D-Day, relied on purely external impressions rather than the inner emotions so dominant in First World War prose and poetry, and seems more in tune with the modern ear.
Douglas used images of Nature powerfully: here is the first verse from ‘Desert Flowers’:
Living in a wide landscape are the flowers
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying
the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.
But that is not new.
An especial favourite is the last verse of ‘Cairo Jag’:
But by a day’s travelling you reach a new world
the vegetation is of iron
dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli
Here is a section from my own travel diaries:
‘After the wonders of South Africa, the lack of animal life in Mozambique was an eerie echo of the country’s war years. Just when I had given up hope of seeing any animal life – even dogs were scarce – I spotted a tiny deer, but there again I wished I hadn’t. It was held aloft by a boy on the side of the road to Ilha Mozambique, for sale. The next day the boy was there with the deer – this time it was dead.
Getting to Ilha Mozambique is simple enough: you take the road from Nampula to the port of Nacala and two-third’s along you fork right. The countryside is thickly wooded and you pass an imposing church with ecstatic frescoes behind which Portugese fathers quietly run a mission which survived all the ravages of the civil war.
Then the light and air seems somehow brighter and lighter, the signs of the approaching coast-line with palm-trees appearing along with little mangrove swamps: just before hitting the coast there is a huge baobab tree and a green and white sign pointing left to a British war cemetery marked ‘Lumbo’.
Down a sandy track the thirty odd graves are in rows, no christian names, just initials: Sergeant-Major J Plows, E Surrey regiment attchd King’s African Rifles, died 4 September 1918; Captain H. Popplewell, Royal Irish Rifles, attchd King’s African Rifles, died 22, July 1918, and so on. For the Africans, however, a mass grave, a joint headstone tucked at the back saying: ‘here are honoured seven African soldiers who fell at Lumbo in the Great War’. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre