|First Glimpse of Ypres, Lt. C.H. Barraud, Canadian War Museum|
As war poet Richard Aldington wrote, some aspects of the Western Front were “More beautiful than one can tell.” Carola Oman, a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, wrote poetry that offers a woman’s perspective, describing the beauty she found in the landscape of war.
In the Ypres Sector
And it is we that are both deaf and blind.
By coarse grass mounds here the small crosses rise
Sunk sideways in the ditch, or low inclined
Over some little stream where waters sing
By shell holes blue with beauty from the skies.
Even the railway cutting has kind shade
And colour, where the rusty wire is laid
Round the soft tracks. Because you knew them thus
The dark mouthed dug-outs hold a light for us.
And here each name rings rich upon our ears
Which first we learnt with sorrow and with tears.
The first line opens with the tenderness of a love poem: “You have left beauty here in everything.” Who does the poem address? The beauty has been left by each soldier who has known the “dark mouthed dug-outs,” and every man buried under the “small crosses [that] rise/ Sunk sideways in the ditch.” The dead of the Ypres Sector imbue the land with beauty, from the watery shell holes that reflect the blue of the sky, to the shade and colour of the barbed wire stretched along the Western Front.
And what are the names that ring “rich upon our ears”? Messines, Langemarck, Zonnebeke, Zillebeke, Hill 60, Polygon Wood, and Passchendaele – these are the names of the places where the sheer volume of death and suffering threatened to overwhelm the imagination.
How can Oman possibly describe these places of sorrow and tears as “rich”? The poem reveals that the names have achieved their reverent power not because of the military objectives that were won or lost there, but because “you knew them thus.” The battles’ names have been sanctified by the presence of those who fought and died there: men who were dearly loved – husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, and sweethearts.
Over fifty years earlier, Abraham Lincoln dedicated the American Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg, saying, “We cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” In a similar vein, Carola Oman, in her poem “The Menin Road, March 1919,” looked out over the “flat dim land,” and asked, “I wonder are you wholly gone?” A sense of the courage and spirit of the men of the Ypres Sector still lingers at the battle sites, one-hundred years later.
Oman’s small book of poetry, The Menin Road and Other Poems (1919), is dedicated to four of her friends who were also V.A.D.s working in the hospitals and casualty clearing stations of the war as they tended the never-ending parade of dying and wounded men. Her poems are dedicated to Lillian Chapman, Janet Dundas Allen, Una Barron, and May Wedderburn Cannan, “In memory of days we served together in England and France.”
This post also attempts to honor the V.A.D.s and nurses of the First World War, who fought their own battles and who warred against suffering and despair to find “beauty in everything.”