“The Post Office Rifles and the 6th Battalion – ‘the Cast-Iron Sixth – in turn would then pass through their lines to continue the advance to the next objectives on the downward slope of the ridge, the ‘Cough Drop,’ also known as ‘Leicester Square’, and the ‘Starfish Line’. The London Irish and the Poplar and Stepney Rifles were to lead the advance to the west of High Wood, before being succeeded by the 19th and 20th Battalions. ‘The postmen from quiet little hamlets or clerks who had spent their lives hitherto in snug offices, talked about these future regimental mortuaries with the homely names with astonishing calmness…'”
What struck me about this quote from Neil Hanson’s book, was how soldiers used the names of well known and familiar places, to name those places which were not only unfamiliar, but also terrifying, often places of horror and death on a scale which could never be imagined within those more familiar places back home. Trenches were named in a similar fashion: Oxford Circus, Oxford Street, George Street, Broad Street and so on.
“By day, the screams and groans of the wounded and dying had been drowned by the deafening clamour of the battle. At nightfall, though still counterpointed by the rumble of the guns, their pitiful cries and please for help could be hear echoing through the shattered wood…”
This quote reiterates how this war was a war of sounds; how men could be reduced to tears and much worse by sounds; those of the incessant shells or the solitary man crying in a dark wood.
“‘The reading of the battalion roll-call must have broken the hearts of all who heard it – ‘a hollow square of jaded, muddy figures… A strong voice… calls one name after another from a Roll lit by a fluttering candle, shaded by the hand of one of the remaining Sergeant Majors.’ Name after name went unanswered; each silence, another man wounded, missing or dead.'”
This very poignant passage reminded me of some text-based work I did whilst investigating the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. These text-based pieces started as free-written prose and through a process of increasing the spacing between the letters changed to become squares where the words were reduced to a scattering of letters. As soon as I read the words ‘a hollow square’ I thought at once of those.