Unseen Graveyards

By Riley Kane

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I was aware of the bodies lost in the First World War, and how men’s bodies would have to be abandoned in no-man’s-land because enemy fire prevented them from being retrieved, but the graphic nature of Louis Barthas’ memoir showed me the impromptu graves were not confined to the empty space between the trenches. Bearing this in mind, the prospect of visiting the battlefields became much more ghastly. I originally figured battlefields like Verdun and the Somme would have lost men here and about, that is what happens in war, but after seeing the advances of the trenches shown at monuments in combination with Barthas’s words I understood the gristly truth, that the entire battlefield and all the lands around it likely play host to the remains of soldiers.

Barthas is no prolific author, but his descriptions of men’s deaths during the war are chilling. He describes those killed in a nearby trench at Verdun:

There, human flesh had been shredded, torn to bits. At places where the earth was soaked with blood, swarms of flies swirled and eddied. You couldn’t really see the corpses, but you knew where they were, hidden in shell holes with a layer of dirt on top of them, from the wafting smells of rotten flesh. (193)

These words chill to the bone. They are horrific to read, but then to consider that when visiting Verdun one could easily walk over the exact trench mentioned or another with a similarly gruesome tale. The various descriptions of the soldiers that were destroyed and lost in the land serve to remind visitors to Great War battlefield that the entire area is a graveyard, and that any spot may be occupied by some soldier’s remains. Barthas’s writing too is very visceral. Perhaps it is because he is not a writer by trade, but Barthas conveys the deaths of his comrades in a much more brutal and disturbing manner than any other authors I have read, such as Ernst Jünger, Erich Maria Remarque, or Henri Barbusse.  Those authors captured the feeling of war, conveyed how it felt to be shelled, to live in the trenches, etc. but in a way that obscured the brutal facts of the war itself, Barthas, without any literary pretentions is describing the war exactly as he sees it.

In addition to mutilating the living, the artillery would too mutilate the dead. Barthas noted that, “The dead couldn’t even sleep [in the cemetery] in peace, Enormous shells had torn them up, pulverized them, scattered their bones all around.” (278) Even attempts at organized cemeteries were undermined by the continued war. Men such as these likely contributed to the ossuary at Verdun, and Unknown Soldier graves.

When I originally conceived of going to Verdun and the Somme I thought of them rather like an American Revolutionary or Civil War battlefield – in that it is possible a few men were left on the field and hundreds or thousands died here, but that their bodies were mostly removed and buried in cemeteries. This thought was reinforced by the presence of the countless commonwealth gravesites, and also the American and French cemeteries. Reading through Barthas’s memoir I realized the different nature of deaths in the First World War, one could be obliterated by shellfire, if killed in action one could be buried by shellfire, if after being given a proper burial the front shifted then one’s gravesite could be bombarded. Great War battlefields are different ground from any other war; no other conflict saw individual soldiers so completely destroyed.

The battlefields of the First World War are graveyards just as much as any national cemetery. The decades old trees and the moss that have grown over shell mounds and holes at Verdun help to cover the true nature of the battles that occurred there. Similarly the rolling farmlands of the Somme makes it difficult for to envision that instead of the rolling fields today, during the war one would have been looking on the surface of the moon. It is not totally wrong that this is allowed to happen, land needs to be used, and it would be challenging to prevent the growth of nature over a site as vast as Verdun. The most reasonable thing is therefore something similar to what we have done on this trip. It is necessary for nations to preserve portions of battlefields so the alien terrain and the power of the artillery shells can be observed, but good Great War tourists should also read about how the environment really was, and the horrific things that happened there that are today unseen.

About Stephen Norris