“Decayed sandbags, new sandbags, boards, dropped ammunition, empty tins, corrugated iron…”
These words are those of a German soldier – written at the Front just before the Battle of the Somme – and form just a small part of an extract in Neil Hanson’s book, ‘The Unknown Soldier.’ Instantly I read them, they called to mind the remnants dredged from the battlefield which I’d seen in the museum at Hill 62 in Ieper.
On their own, these artefacts are powerful – yet mute – witnesses to the Great War, but when reading a soldier write about them, even listing them as above, they change. They each regain their voice – their signifier, and re-emerge from the shadows.
In my painting ‘Auschwitz-Birkenau Remembered‘ I cut words up into individual letters and scattered them onto the painting, I also wrote directly into the paint itself to show how words failed to articulate the horror of such a place (the written words could barely be read). Another way of looking at this however, is to say that words are able to speak of such horror, but have simply lost their original voice. It then falls to us to speak the words for those who are no longer able to do so, to put them back together.
Subsequent to this, I’ve been thinking about the process of reading, for example an extract from Filip Muller’s powerful testimony, ‘Eyewitness Auschwitz – Three Years in the Gas Chambers,’ in which he describes the horrific murder of a fellow prisoner.
“There was utter silence, broken only by the twitterings of the swallows darting back and forth.”
We were not there in Auschwitz at the moment this line describes (the moment before the doomed prisoner speaks up against the camp’s brutal regime), yet we all know silence and have seen and heard swallows. So although we were not there to witness at first hand this terrible event, we can imagine a silence, a particular one we might have felt some place before, and picture a time we saw a swallow fly. We can use fragments of evidence (photographs, documentary footage) to construct a fuller picture, and fill in the gaps with fragments of own experience. When we speak the words of others therefore, those words will form pictures in our own minds drawn from our own experience.
“As the torrents of machine-gun bullets ripped through the grassy slopes up which the British troops were advancing, the smell of an English summer – fresh cut grass – filled the air. For thousands it would be the last scent they would ever smell.”
This extract, also from Neil Hanson’s book, ‘The Unknown Soldier,’ presents us with an image of slaughter, made all the more terrible (if that were possible) with a reference to the smell of cut grass – one of those smells which invokes in most of us, memories of lazy summer’s days. The two are, obviously, utterly incongruous, yet it somehow makes our task of imagining the horror a little easier. We know the smell of cut grass, and waves of associations and memories are no doubt triggered by the aroma. In the days before the battle, when the soldiers doomed to die waited for the day, they too might have smelled the grassy air and found their way back to times when things were better. It is again the contrast – something which I’ve described before in relation to my visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ieper which makes this passage so heart-breaking.
Finally, I wrote earlier (Imagination and Memory) of how as a child I created a world, made up of fragments of landscapes which I loved, and how as I grew older, I created worlds that were ‘real’ – visions of Oxford as it might have looked centuries earlier. Just as when reading the quote above, I would – as I still do – use documentary evidence to start – images (photographs and drawings) of how the city looked, contemporary writings (such as those of Anthony Wood) – and then fill in the gaps using my own direct experience, in effect, the city as it looks today.