Tuesday, August 2, 2016

If only

A memory can serve as an anchor and a touchstone to the past; when we learn that a remembered place has been changed or erased, we lose a bit of ourselves. Just one month after Britain declared war on Germany in early August of 1914,  fifty-one-year-old English novelist May Sinclair volunteered to join the Munro Ambulance Corps in Belgium.  The early months of the war were chaotic, and Sinclair, along with the Red Cross unit to which she’d been assigned, were caught up in the October retreat of the Belgium army and forced to flee from the German advance.  Sinclair was a witness to shelled villages, crowds of fleeing Belgian refugees, and dying and wounded soldiers who were among the first casualties of the war. She wrote in her journal, “It is extraordinary how your mind can put away from it any thought that would make life insupportable.”* In an attempt to cope with the tragedies unfolding around her, she turned to poetry.

After the Retreat

If I could only see again
The house we passed on the long Flemish road
That day
When the Army went from Antwerp, through Bruges, to the sea;
The house with the slender door,
And the one thin row of shutters, grey as dust on the white wall.
It stood low and alone in the flat Flemish land,
And behind it the high slender trees were small under the sky.

Francis Wolle collection
It looked
Through windows blurred like women's eyes that have cried too long.

There is not anyone there whom I know,
I have never sat by its hearth, I have never crossed its threshold, I have never
opened its door,
I have never stood by its windows looking in;
Yet its eyes said: 'You have seen four cities of Flanders:
Ostend, and Bruges, and Antwerp under her doom,
And the dear city of Ghent;
And there is none of them that you shall remember
As you remember me.'

I remember so well,
That at night, at night I cannot sleep in England here;
But I get up, and I go:
Not to the cities of Flanders,
Not to Ostend and the sea,
Not to the city of Bruges, or the city of Antwerp, or the city of Ghent,
But somewhere
In the fields
Where the high slender trees are small under the sky—

If I could only see again
The house we passed that day.
--May Sinclair

One simple house, “low and alone”: the memory of it is haunting.  The war itself is simply too large to comprehend: thousands of exhausted and frightened refugees, endless lines of retreating soldiers, hospital wards filled with wounded and dying men – these are  too much for the mind to hold. Instead, the woman who watches the war focuses on the one thing that stands apart from the chaos. The normalcy of a single house with its slender door and grey shutters is reassuring, even as both the home and the slender trees surrounding it are dwarfed by the sky and the unfolding drama of the retreat.

The observer in the poem feels a strange kinship with the house, and even its windows are “blurred like women’s eyes that have cried too long.” While the woman watching the war does not know the house nor anyone who has lived there, it seems to stare at her and speak prophetically, perhaps accusingly, imprinting itself on her memory and whispering, “there is none of them that you shall remember/As you remember me.”
Ypres 1915, Gilbert Rogers
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3792

Even after leaving Flanders and returning to the safety of England, the poem’s speaker spends sleepless nights haunted by memories of the war. Rising from her bed, she journeys in her imagination not to the famous cities that have fallen, not to the hospital wards of wounded, not to the files of men marching in exhausted retreat, but to one solitary homestead. Like her, the house is a small and insignificant witness to the war.

The poem’s last stanza echoes the its opening lines with the simple plea, “If I could only see again/The house we passed that day.” What meaning does this unremarkable house hold? Perhaps the compulsion to see it once more is simply to insure that the home still stands, that it lives on as a silent witness.  Did the solitary house with the slender door and grey shutters survive, or was it too obliterated by the violence that shook the world in the years of the Great War?

Writing in her journal, May Sinclair voiced her own uncertainties: “I do not know whether I have done the right thing or not in leaving Flanders (or, for that matter, in leaving Ghent). All that I know is that I love it and that I have left it.  And that I want to go back.”**

Although she spent only three weeks with the Field Ambulance Corps in Belgium, the experience touched Sinclair deeply. Her journal notes, “wherever the ambulance cars go, they meet endless processions of refugees; endless, for the straight, flat Flemish roads are endless, and as far as your eye can see the stream of people is unbroken; endless, because the misery of Belgium is endless; the mind cannot grasp it or take it in. You cannot meet it with grief, hardly with conscious pity; you have not tears for it; it is a sorrow that transcends everything you have known of sorrow.”***

Like other women who wrote poems about the First World War (for example, Margaret Widdemer and Maria Dobler Benemann), May Sinclair uses the image of a home and all it represents – normalcy, security, and love – to express the unimaginable devastation of the Great War.  Destroying everything in its path – from remote homes to the very fabric of European society – the war forever altered the world.
May Sinclair

* A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 150.
** A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 289.
*** A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 119.


  1. A Farm near Zillebeke - Edmund Blunden

    Black clouds hide the moon, the amazement is gone;
    The morning will come in weeping and in rain;
    The Line is all hushed - on a sudden anon
    The fool bullets clack and guns mouth again.
    I stood in the yard of a house that must die,
    And still the black hame was stacked by the door,
    And harness still hung there, and the dray waited by.

    Black clouds hid the moon, tears blinded me more.

    (taken from my WWI poetry anthology)

    Zillebeke is the quietest of hamlets one could ever begin to imagine.
    100 years on, involuntarily its streets cast my mind back to Blunden's heart-stopping 'picture in words'.

    The impressions conveyed in his and May Sinclair's subdued words are among those that ought never to be forgotten.

    1. Thanks so VERY much for sharing, Chris. I've been wracking my brain for examples of poems written by soldiers who look at the war's impact on civilians, and Blunden's piece is lovely. If you know of other such poems by other male writers, please message me!

  2. these poems and accompanying texts are very moving

    1. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to respond, Gilly.