Thursday, June 30, 2016

High Wood

London Cemetery and High Wood
The Bois des Foureaux, known to the British as “High Wood,” was the scene of a months-long struggle lasting from July to September of 1916.  Covering an area approximately one-tenth of a square mile (or about 75 acres), High Wood saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Somme.  Over 8.000 British and German men were killed in attacks on the wood. It was called “the rottenest place on the Western Front,” and British Major-General Charles Barter was relieved of his command due to the “wanton waste of men.” 

In 1918, British Lieutenant John Purvis envisioned a time when the war would be over.  Imagining the crowds of tourists who would come to visit the battlefields of the Great War, he wrote of High Wood. 

High Wood

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Furneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being....
          Madame, please, 

You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company's property
As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me - this way .....
          the path, sir, please, 

The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.
—Philip Johnstone (pseudonym for Lt. John Stanley Purvis)

As we mark the centenary of the First World War, it seems appropriate to ask why we visit battlefields. What is it that we hope to achieve or see or feel? Writing in 1942 in the midst of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot composed a poem about another site of pilgrimage, “Little Gidding.” Although written about a seventeenth-century church, Eliot’s words seem strangely appropriate as we reflect today on sites of conflict and remembrance.   
John Stanley Purvis
T.S. Eliot
©National Portrait Gallery,London

      If you came this way, 
     Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
     At any time or at any season,
     It would always be the same: you would have to put off
     Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
     Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
     Or carry report. You are here to kneel
     Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
     Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
     Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
     And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
     They can tell you, being dead: the communication
     Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
     Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

     Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


  1. In retrospect, understandably Purvis/Johnstone has this more ephemeral touch about it. It retained the 'couleur locale' of a concrete battlefield and gathers its impact from the reactions/warnings of the officer-guide. Eliot's voice, by contrast, is one of the thoroughbred poet. His message is far more subdued one way, and eloquent, the other. His appeal for the visitor, be it of a battlefield or any cemetery, speaks out for the humility of a prayer. Anywhere one goes or no matter what one thinks of, whether one be religious or not, his (Eliot's) words conjure up what it is that makes us (wo)man, connecting the living with the dead by conveying the silent message that the latter would have us understand.
    What a fine and considerate juxtaposition, indeed, to have this Purvis alongside this Eliot.

  2. More subdued and yet more eloquent -- beautifully said, Chris. I always learn so much from your comments. Thanks for reading.

  3. As a regular battlefield visitor Purvis' poem haunts me and always brings up feelings of guilt when I am lounging about in Ypres of an evening with a few beers consumed to wash down a good steak/frites. High Wood is still closed I think and in private French hands I think. I have toured it with the late great Trevor Pidgeon (of tanks fame). It mercifully has not gone in the direction Purvis suggested. It has a unique atmosphere. Comparisons are odious but Purvis speaks to me very powerfully as it hits me right where it hurts - the Eliot is a great poem of course.

    1. Thanks, Ian, for reading and putting into words so well the strangeness of enjoying Ypres after touring the battlefields.

  4. Remarkable that Purvis wrote this as early as 1918. Battlefield touring only became the mass event envisaged in 1928. The poem is alarmingly prescient - though High Wood happily remains a private place