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Paul Gough
Holy Relics: Venerated Detritus
1,000 copies to coincide with Loci memoriae- a project of writing, artwork and web design on the themes of commemoration, monuments and other acts of oblivia created in Bristol UK during the prelude to Armistice Day 2001.
    It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
    Leave it – under the oak.
    Leave it for a salvage-bloke
    let it lie bruised for a monument
    dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.

    … but leave it - under the oak.
    Leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated areas and crawl
    as far as you can and wait for the bearers.(1)
Holy Relics: Venerated Detritus
Like David Jones, many old soldiers suspected that the withered landscape of northern France and Belgian Flanders would swarm with tourists once the First World War had ended. Another war poet, Philip Johnstone, wrote a sardonic poem(2) about the sightseers who would be drawn to the killing fields out of dread fascination and morbid curiousity :
    Ladies and Gentlemen, this is High Wood,
    Called by the French, Bois des Forneaux,
    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 this fighting for a 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.
But not even Johnstone could have guessed at the obsessive habit of post-war battlefield tourists to claim a segment of the land blooded by their kinsmen. During the period of mass pilgrimage in the early 1920s tracts of the battlefields were scoured for evidence of wars’ realities: stone, soil, seeds, shards of glass, became the coinage of remembrance, a currency that crossed all borders.

Coloured glass was highly valued as evidence of pilgrimage, especially by those who had travelled long distances. In Carmichael United Church in Regina, Canada, for instance, a memorial window incorporates a single piece of glass bought back by a pilgrim from the Great War battlefields around Ypres. Another memorial window, in St Paul’s Church, Toronto comprises over 600 fragments of glass gathered from seventy European buildings damaged during the war, as well as an altar rail from Arras cathedral, and shards of glass and exfoliant stonework from various ecclesiatical buildings on the former battlefield. Such fragments were held in great reverence and were highly valued as material proof by those who could not make the long journey across the Atlantic. With heightened status came an increase in the scale of the spoil : the Canadian General Arthur Currie has a grave marker in Mount Royal Cemetery which includes a stone from the chateau at Camblain l’Abbe and bags of soil from Vimy, Ypres and the Somme. Jonathon Vance (3) has described these battlefield relics as playing a fundamental part in Canada’s memorialisation of the war. He argues that these bits of rubble, shards of glass and bags of dirt became endowed with a spiritual significance. As artifacts taken from the new Holy Land, they were tranformed into objects of veneration: touching a lump of stone from France was the closest most Canadians would come to partaking in the ‘Great Crusade’.

So little of any substance survived on the worst tracts of French battlefield that considerable efforts were made to shore up and preserve symbolic features. At Beaumont Hamel, on the old Somme battlefield, the government of Newfoundland purchased for a memorial park a large stretch of pock-marked ground which was criss-crossed by deep and distinctive trenches. Here the Newfoundland Regiment had suffered appalling losses in an ill-timed attack on the first day of the Somme battle in 1916. Some yards in front of the Newfoundlander’s trenches is the petrified remains of a tree, preserved - a little inelegantly - in a sunken barrel full of cement. It served as a gathering point during the attack, providing little shelter from the withering rain of bullets and high explosives. Perhaps for that reason it is known variously as the Danger Tree, l’arbre de la guerre, the Tree of Death. Now encircled by paper poppies and wreaths - the paraphenalia of remembrance - it has curious resonances with the fable of the Upas Tree, a mythical plant that was said to have grown on the isle of Java in the midst of a desert formed by its own ‘pestiferous exhalations’ which destroyed all vegetable and animal life that came near it. Derived from accounts of the poisonous anchar tree discovered by the 18th century botanist Erasmus Darwin, the Upas Tree was reputed to contain a precious poison which could be obtained by piercing the bark. ‘So hopeless, and so perilous was the endeavour to obtain it’, wrote Richard Redgrave in 1866, that only criminals sentenced to death could be induced to make the attempt, and as numbers of them perished, the place became a valley of the shadow of death, a charnel-field of bones.’(4)

Five miles along the old battle-line there is another preserved tree – an one hundred year old hornbeam, which is the positive to the Danger Tree’s negative. Despite being riddled with shrapnel, annually adorned with paper poppies and regularly caressed by pilgrims, it survives as the sole pre-war plant in the once-flattened Delville (Devil’s) Wood.

In the aftermath of the Great War, while the native Belgian and French people toiled to reconstruct the regions devastees, individuals and groups from as far afield as Australia and Canada came to locate particular places which might still contain the memory of significant events. For most visitors there was little to see. As David Lloyd has observed, the landscape which drew them was largely an imaginary one: ‘It was not the sites themselves which attracted travellers, but their associations.’(5) One guidebook assured pilgrims that:
    touring the battlefields is a different thing altogether to touring for the purpose of sight seeing, in fact I can safely say that the mere sight-seer will probably be disappointed with the devastated zones of France and Belgium. But combined with ‘atmosphere’ and imagination they will draw the tourists like magnets and he will probably return to them again and again.(6)
It was though arduous tourism: hotels were few, roads unsurfaced, the land still inhospitable. Pilgrimage was defined by a 1928 British Legion handbook as ‘a subduing of the flesh in order to expand the soul’. (7)

In its desolated and noisome state, littered with war refuse and unspent ordnance, the emptied land was devoid of identifying landmarks except for painted signposts indicating the site of former villages, churches or farmsteads. Yet these were the very sites of memory that would assume an inestimable significance in national, regional and local memory. Over the next decade governments, remembrance groups, and bereaved families bought small tracts of foreign land as permanent memorials and sacred spaces. On such sites of memory, planting was a carefully considered act, not least because the soil of northern France was quite literally seeded with the bodies of the Empire’s dead. The double avenue of apparently ancient oaks either side of the South African Brigade’s museum on the Somme battlefield, for example, were grown from acorns harvested and sent over from Cape Colony. Maple trees were grown around Canadian cemeteries, wattle was imported from New Zealand sites. The Imperial War Graves Commission recruited experts from Kew Gardens to advise on appropriate funerary plantings for the graves of Indian and Chinese troops.(8)

In Turkey, on the notorious Gallipoli Peninsula, a solitary dwarf pine had long dominated the skyline on the slopes above Anzac beach. An obvious landmark during the battles of mid-1915 it lent its name to the surrounding land - Lone Pine Ridge, Lone Pine Plateau. However, the night before one attack, Turkish soldiers cut the tree down to avoid it being used as a registration point. Long after the war its remains were discovered crammed into a dug-out on the old front-line. Inspired by its significance in their national memory, several Australian pilgrims took seeds from its pine cones and planted them in the grounds of the Canberra War Memorial. In time, a tree grew there and when mature, its seeds were flown back to Gallipoli and planted near the spot of the Mother Tree, now in the centre of a war cemetery. The idea of the lonesome pine also survives in the title of a song made famous by Laurel and Hardy.(9)

On these sacred sites little is left to chance ; aboreal symbolism is a powerful means of perpetuating memory, allowing a fluidity of commemoration that could not always be conveyed in stone and bronze. This was especially true in the First World War because, in the interests of standardisation, an Army General Routine Order of May 1916 banned permanent personalised memorials in any military cemetery. Uniform headstones were agreed in Parliament during a highly charged debate in May 1920. Such a rigid system occasionally resulted in acts of arboreal transgression, such as the occasion in 1922 when the father of Lt. Eric Duckworth (killed in action in August 1915) travelled from Dunsterville near Rochdale to Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula bearing a young sapling. Surreptitiously planted to one side of Redoubt Military Cemetery it is now a mature English oak which upsets the customary symmetry of the graveyard regime. There are few acts of such ‘guerilla gardening’ other than paper wreaths and imitation silk poppies. Though always well scrubbed, the military cemeteries seem less abundant in flowers and shrubs than they appear to be in photographs taken during the pilgrimage phase of the 1920s. The anglicisation of Flanders and Picardy after the war took many forms, some of them unofficial. Transgressive gardening is a central theme in Julian Barnes’ short story Evermore when the protaganist, Miss Moss, attempts to reclaim the private memory of her fallen brother from the administrative anonymity and foreign soil of the French cemetery which she visits every year:
    There had been problems with the planting. The grass at the cemetery was French grass, and it seemed to her of the coarser type, inappropriate for British soldiers to lie beneath. Her campaign over this with the Commission led nowhere. So one spring she took out a small spade and a square yard of English turf, patting it into place, then stamping it in. She was pleased with her work, and the next year, as she approached the grave, saw no indication of her mending. But when she knelt, she realized that her work had been undone: the French grass was back again.(10)
Because British and Allied military cemeteries have been sealed against arboreal intervention, remembrance organisations, such as the Western Front Association have had to look elsewhere. In the mid 1990s a group from Bristol sought out and planted a sapling on the site of the notorious ‘Lone Tree’ that once stood half-way across no-man’s-land on the Loos Battlefield and formed the right hand marker for the 1st Division of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915. On the slate-flat fields of northern France the tree was a distinctive feature, noted by the artillery as a reliable datum point for calibration purposes. The trade in significant trees and memorial plantings is matched by instances of a more haphazard nature: in the aftermath of the war all sorts of foreign flora were to be found in the ravaged soil of Flanders: the Our-Lady’s- thistle, Silybum Marianum had been bought from Scotland in the horses’ oats ; solid, lumpy turnips were carried there from Germany, and everywhere grew the wind-blown native poppies, Papaver Rhoeas.(11) In 1927, the trans-Atlantic solo pilot Charles Lindbergh scattered thousands of poppy seeds from his ‘plane as he flew over the American cemetery in Waregem.

There was also a thriving exchange in rocks and stones. On the edge of High Wood in France – possibly near the path taken by Johnstone’s tourists – is a cairn that commemorates the 192 Glasgow Highlanders killed here in 1916. Built in 1972 its form is derived from a Scottish Highland custom that required each warrior going into battle to add a stone to a pile, each survivor removing one afterwards; the remaining stones representing the number of casualties. The cairn in France is made up of 192 stones hand-picked from the fields around Culloden and is exactly 5 feet 7 inches high - the minimum height for recruitment to that battalion.(12)

Compare this with the scale of quarrying during the ‘monumental phase’ in the years that followed the war. Every week between 1920 and 1924 thousands of tonnes of white stone were quarried from Portland and shipped across the continent to be further carved and inscribed as headstones for the cemeteries of Flanders. By 1927 more than 400,000 headstones had been erected. This monumental effort was the greatest period of commemoration since pharonic Egypt.(13) At the foot of each headstone relatives could choose their own inscription, but they were charged threepence halfpenny for each letter and for each space between words, to a maximum of 66 characters. At that rate the popular epitaph - ‘At the going down of the sun we will remember them’ – cost a bereaved family fourteen shillings, seven pence halfpenny.

In 1920, to mark one stage in the long process of closure, the tomb of Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was sealed with a slab of granite excavated from Belgium, and the body packed in by battlefield soil bought across to London in six sealed barrels. By this ritual, notes Sue Malvern, foreign soil and England were ‘literally mingled together through the bodies of the nation’s dead’.(14) So the landscape of Flanders was re-colonised and anglicised by the war dead, while the parish church of the empire was seeded with sacred dust.

The idea of landscape-as-body is central to Paul Gough’s recent work. In 1918 John Salis drew such parallels while appraising Paul Nash’s war paintings. He wrote that a ‘quite appreciable proportion of its present surface soil has walked the earth in Germany, Great Britain or Australia’.(15) Today, it is hard to shake off these thoughts when walking across the boneyards of northern France, Belgium or Turkey. The dead ground of the Somme valleys and the Anzac creeks has deeply infused Gough’s studio work in the past decade and is evidenced in the images reproduced in this catalogue.

1 David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937) part 7, pp. 183–186

2 Philip Johnstone, High Wood, cited in Paul Fussell, The Bloody Game (Scribners, London, 1991) pp.197–98

3 Jonathan F. Vance, Death so Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (UBC Press, Vancouver, 1997).

4 Richard and Samuel Redgrave, A Century of Painters (London, 1866) pp.438 – 9 ; see also Francis Greenacre, Francis Danby, 1793 – 1861 (Tate Gallery, London 1988) pp. 89–91, p.112

5 David Lloyd, Battlefield Tourism (Berg, Oxford,1998)

6 T.A. Lowe, The Western Battlefields: A Guide to the British Line (London, 1920) p.9.

7 Cited in Sue Malvern, War Tourisms: ‘Englishness’, art, and the First World War, Oxford Art Journal, 24.1. 2001, pp. 45–66

8 Philip Longworth, The Unending Vigil: A History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission 1917-1984 (London, Secker and Warburg, 1967/1985) p.20

9 Paul Gough, ‘Conifers and Commemoration: the Politics and Protocol of Planting’ Landscape Research, 1996 21, 1, pp. 73-87

10 Julian Barnes, Evermore (London, Penguin, 1996) pp. 39-41

11 Marc Derez, ‘A Belgian Salient for Reconstruction: People and Patrie, Landscape and Memory’ in Passchendaele in Perspective (London, Leo Cooper, 1997) p.456

12 Martin and Mary Middlebrook, The Somme: A Battlefield Guide (London, Viking, 1991)

13 Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning : the Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, CUP, 1994)

14 Sue Malvern, op.cit, p.59

15 John Salis (Jan Gordon) ‘The Artist’ in British Artists at the Front, Part 3, Paul Nash (London 1918)