Contemporary First World War tributes
French, Germans and British in their millions were enlisted in the First World War, the Battle of the Somme, and those of the Chemin des Dames or the Oise. For some of them, this terrible experience provoked the desire to set down events and feelings on paper, in order to never forget and to describe human madness. Novels were written and films were made, and some moving poetry has circled the globe. Even now, the Great War is recounted through various exhibitions.
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Otto Dix: German expressionism
In 1914, Otto Dix enlisted at the age of 24 with German troops on the western front, which took him to the Somme. Upon his return, he became a pacifist and his work developed the theme of the violence and savagery of combat. He notably produced fifty etchings of which one copy, one of the rare examples in the “Der Krieg” (“War”) cycle is kept at the Péronne Museum of the Great War.
Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and John McRae: British poetry
Four British poets left a lasting impact on twentieth century literature through their experiences at the Somme. Siegfried Sassoon found a darker and more realistic poetic and literary form in the fighting of WWI. Injured in July 1917, after the war, he expounded upon his view of war. Robert Graves was in the Welsh Fusiliers at the same time as Siegfried Sassoon. Both poets were close to Fricourt, in the Bois Français. The horrendous fighting conditions profoundly marked his work. The third major British author, Wilfred Owen, wrote many well-known poems. Lastly, John McRae is the famous author of “In Flanders’ Fields” which mentions poppies, the symbol of the deaths at the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.
Guillaume Apollinaire enlisted as a volunteer in the French army. He fought on the fronts at the Somme and Aisne. He described a view of the front marked by his experiences in the first row of the trenches. Here is what he wrote for example in the poem “2ème Canonnier conducteur” (“2nd Gunner driver”) in his Calligrammes.
Ernst Jünger and the “Storm of Steel”
A recognised philosopher, the German Ernst Jünger participated in the Battle of the Somme. In his work “Storm of Steel”, he describes the horror of the Somme front and the community of soldiers.
Blaise Cendrars and “The Severed Hand”
It was in the village of Frise, close to its chalky banks abounding in wild orchids, nowadays preserved by the Picardy Conservatoire des sites naturels, and close to its marshland, that Blaise Cendrars wrote some of the finest pages of war literature, in his work “The Severed Hand” (“La main coupée”). The writer stayed there from late 1914 to February 1915. A Swiss native who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, he tells the horror of the trenches. It was later, in Champagne, that the author lost his right hand.
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The Lord of the Rings and the Somme
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has recently experienced a worldwide resurgence through Peter Jackson's film adaptation. What is little known is that this tale was largely inspired by the trauma experienced by the British writer during the Battle of the Somme. Enlisted in 1916, he found himself at the heart of the trenches. According to some, he was affected by psychological problems related to explosions, but he was in any event sent home. While convalescing, the author started to develop his Middle Earth fantasy. Many of the scenes, and the overall philosophy, of The Lord of the Rings were inspired by his time at the Somme. Consequently, in the second volume of the trilogy, the young hero, Frodo, crosses marshes where phantoms rising to the surface appear. Tolkien reportedly took his direct inspiration for this scene from the Somme’s no-man’s land.
The World of Narnia
The author of the film, C.S. Lewis, a northern Irishman from Belfast, was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis also took part in the first world war and also found himself in the Somme valley. Enlisted in 1917, he joined the Third Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. Wounded at the Battle of Arras, he was sent home to Britain.
Merry Christmas (“Joyeux Noël”)
When war suddenly began in 1914, millions of men were caught up in the unexpected maelstrom, taken to fight relentlessly on the fronts at the Somme. And then Christmas came, with its snow and the accompanying presents from families and headquarters. But the surprise was not to be found in the generous packages strewn around the French, Scottish and German trenches… A meal swapped between the trenches, a few handshakes… the war stopped for an evening.
A Very Long Engagement (“Un long dimanche de fiançailles”)
It is 1919, and Mathilde is 19 years old. Two years earlier, her fiancé Manech left for the Somme front. Like millions of others, he is “killed in action”. Yet Mathilde refuses to accept that this is true. She clings on in blind faith and starts on a counter-enquiry. From false hope and doubt, she slowly unravels the fate of Manech and his comrades.
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