1914-1918: not so far away

This evening I had a drink with a Scottish friend, a fellow high-up in another institution. Somehow we got on to a chat about the relative distance of war and he told a moving tale. In February 1917 his grandfather signed up to the Army, crossed the Channel and joined the British forces on the Western Front. He kept a diary of his experiences until he was wounded and invalided out in October of the same year. The diary (which I have now read) is full of laconic and ironic entries. Somehow, the short, terse, descriptions of the horror and terror he lived through render everything more vivid. The diary is also full of familiar place names. Seventy years later my friend came to Belgium for the first time and travelled through the landscape (around Armentières – that’s the station of Armentères in the picture) described in his grandfather’s diary. Now, viewed from the Thalys, it is pastoral land; vast fields, occasional copses, neat brick villages. Then, as his grandfather’s diary entries make clear, it was hell on earth.


  1. Cleveland Moffett

    Martin, that’s fascinating. What’s going to happen to the diary? Is it publishable or only another of those bits of priceless memorabilia that will be passed down through the generations until somebody misplaces it, or until it surfaces for some distant anniversary? (You will heard about the long lost short story by Charlotte Bronte that an Englishman found in a Charleroi library. Her first piece of homework in French. To be published in the LRB.) Thanks for this. Cleve

  2. Martin

    Cleve, I think my friend has plans. I’ll keep you posted. Martin

  3. Per Sommerschield

    You become increasingly conscious of this the older you get. When I was young the second world war seemed like ancient history. Now I can barely comprehend that little more than 10 years before I was born the peoples of Europe were killing each other in this massively destructive conflict.

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