First World War remembrance project
Over the summer of 2015, twenty-three of our places invited visitors to share a silent walk of remembrance to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
'There were our own, there were the others'
The project, conceived by the artist Alec Finlay, was a contemporary act of remembrance for all those affected by conflict. On the walks, poems from all over the world written during the last 100 years were read by Finlay and poets Ken Cockburn, Heather H. Yeung and others. Each place had a pair of poems which embraced 'our own' and 'the others' – from service personnel, peace activists, refugees and exiles, to freedom fighters – reflecting individual experiences of pathos, grief or redemption. All the poems and reflections on the readings can be seen on the 'There were our own' project website.
To mark the end of this project, poet Ken Cockburn has written a poem inspired by his experiences on these silent walks and his subsequent visits to Belgium: Poperinge, Ypres, Bruges, St Symphorien. The last hosts the only cemetery where British and German soldiers of the First World War are buried side-by-side. The poem’s title is inspired by ‘coquelicot’, the French vernacular word for the red corn poppy.
We have a liking for round numbers and
Battlefields, for duty free, hand luggage,
Open borders, self drive, touchscreen smartphones.
We’ve come to see what’s been remade, what’s left.
Driving into Flanders the land flattens,
Falls into lines of poplars and pylons,
Small clusters of slow-turning wind-turbines,
Placid, calm canals the straight road bridges.
We walk in cemeteries open to
The skies or cold under oak canopies
Where body parts are interred, and the words
KNOWN UNTO GOD and UNBEKANNT recur.
What did they believe they were dying for?
Even if they were here to ask, they speak
A dead language I mouth awkwardly and
Parse with difficulty, like school Latin.
The British stones give age at time of death
(The teenagers, the men of middle age);
The German stones recall a place, Heimat
(Bremen, Schwerin, Neubukowitz, Husum).
Skirting fields they contested with their lives
We admire the unharvested produce –
Swollen cabbages and walls of sweetcorn,
Yellow kernels emerging from the husk.
Perhaps it’s not the season but we see
No specimen of papaver rhoeas,
Poppy, Mohn, coquelicot, cromlus, klaaproos,
(the same red bloom despite these varied roots).
We hear their words in darkened rooms I must
Tell you of what I have seen – inspect a
Map with Poperinge’s fingered absence,
Lighter touches tracing the Salient.
Here the locks were opened to inundate
The fields and halt the enemy advance;
The church we stand inside was nothing but
Rubble and two arches the moon silvered.
A track runs through the open autumn wood.
We stoop to peer inside tilting bunkers
Mossed but kept clear of ivy and bramble.
How do you pour concrete in a war zone?
I never knew (or can’t remember) all
Of my grandfather’s war – conscripted, gassed,
Captured, in hospital then in a camp;
His medals are silent on the matter.
A crowd has gathered at the Menin Gate
For the bugler’s ‘Last Post’. It ends and
During the ceremonial silence
A skein of geese honk across the twilight.
An old man plays a repetitive tune
On a horn-violin while tourist-boats
Ply the canal; you browse the market stalls,
Buy wooden shoe-lasts sized for a toddler.
High on a bell-tower I see a jackdaw
Land on a gargoyle below me. It takes
Off, drops then ascends to the spires above
Leaving me stuck here with my gravity.
Two mounds, topped with sword-cross and with needle,
Are spoil-bings from long defunct phosphate mines.
The first and last dead of Reich and Empire.
Late September sun warms a shady grove.
A horse fat with summer ambles over.
Coquelicot, says her mother, coquelicot.
A starling-cloud settles on a pylon.
Cloqueliclot, the girl fumbles, cloqueliclot.
Poperinge – Ypres – Langemark – Bruges – St Symphorien, September 2014