Sunday, September 25, 2011

Toadstools and trenches...

 Looking for mushrooms this summer in the forest of the Argonne I seemed to come across many different unexpected things, but very few actual mushrooms.
  The few that were found had already been visited by marauding slugs, of which there were large numbers, all of a uniform striking rusty orange colour, like discarded bits of plastic.
 However the toadstools I came across, along with less edible mushrooms were so decorative that it was more interesting just looking at them, rather than endlessly looking for them on the forest floor - I was certainly lacking the skill and patience for that...

 Some forms looked like strange lava hooves...

Others like puffballs, ready to split their crackled suede coverings...
 While certain ones ressembled marrow bone....
Some looked tauntingly edible...others less so.
The Argonne "Pays du bois" is situated in north-eastern France, over three départements, the Ardennes, the Marne and the Meuse. Its capital is Sainte-Ménehould - whose culinary speciality is a dish based on pigs' trotters. The Argonne forms a natural barrier between the Champagne region and that of the Lorraine, a geographical element that was to play a vital part in the history of this region.
 The area covers 40 miles in length and 10 miles in width mostly with hilly, densely vegetated land. The massif is not especially high in altitude, even at its more extreme points, yet the land is notably criss-crossed by water courses and runnels, along with the Aire and Aisne rivers.
 The geological composition of the massif is constituted of gaize, which is a relatively rare granular, porous siliceous rock, formed 100 million years from the sea bed, and is to be found here in France, Britain and Japan. The resulting landscape is varied, for while the eastern part of the Argonne is marked by ravines and deep gorges and buttes, the west offers gentler slopes that blend into the Champagne plain on the axis centred between Sainte-Ménehould and Vouziers.
 The particularity of the topography tended to limit the size of  the population, and offered only meagre industry, yet the Argonne was to gain a unique place in history due to the monumental events that took place there over the centuries. Indeed, it was to strike a specific note in the foundation of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century and then become the backdrop to the scenes of unprecedented carnage in the Great War, assuming an international notoreity. In both of these historical landmarks the town of Varennes-en-Argonne and the surrounding area were the set for action. It was here that the king, Louis XVI, was arrrested along with other members of the royal family in 1791 as they all attempted to flee abroad to escape widespread civil discontent. Positioned near the front during the First World War Varenne was to be occupied by German troups and was virtually decimated due to French bombing missions. However, contrary to many other villages of the Argonne which were obliterated, leaving simply the trace of a name, outlines on a map, oppressive wartime images on postcards, Varenne was to survive the violence of the war, pulling through four years of heavy attacks, to be finally rebuilt.
In the woods today, paths lead through tranquill, well-maintained wooded land and there appears to be little to suggest that this landscape could have witnessed such inhumane, human activity. And yet on closer inspection, the signs are still there... What I took to be gentle banks, odds dips and rises on the woodland floor, carpetted with dead leaves and bright ferns and bracken, were in fact the marks of trench action, obus explosions and proof of the displacement of huge clods of soil, ripped from ground under attack.

What has now been clothed in peaceful greenery and animated by all sorts of creatures, great and small, was once a raw wound, gashed into the land. The men therein, German and French alike, were transformed into scrabbling insects, desperate to resurface, scurry from this hell-hole, alive, albeit scarred for life. I found what I thought was part of a large collapsed badger sett, and just as I was wondering if a man could fit into such a hole, I realised that it had indeed been destined for human use, offering shelter, of sorts, to men reduced to a state of bestial survival.
 There are, of course, other more obvious traces of war, with the officers' mess - kronprintz shelter - set into hollows; a strange glimpse of man's attempt to maintain more 'civilised' conditions for the lucky few.... In a war that lasted so long, punctuated by so many battles between 1914-1918, there could be no real winners - each nation left this carnage horrifically wounded. The aim of the German general von Falkenhayn during the battle of Verdun had indeed been to "bleed the French army white", yet little did he suspect, perhaps, that the losses sustained by his troups would be so heavy in such a short space of time (Feb-Dec 1916).
 In this context, the symbolic red poppy, emblem of a lost generation and ironically growing with such vigor in the mangled, blood-stained grounds of the battlefield seems even more striking. The Great War was to be the first where artillery would cause such utter devastation and that combined with the specifities of natural landscape lead to the creation of apocalpytic scenes on such an unnatural scale.
 Dense forest conditions meant that visibility and movement were severely hampered and consequently military tactics and engineering had to adapt to meet requirements. Modest paths through woodland proved inadequate for the mass displacement of troups and demanded extensive work before they would allow for the passage of military vehicules.
 The First World War was to be a war led by advances in explosive devices of all kinds. Grenades, shells and mines tore up land and man alike, while the newly-developed machinegun cut down whole swathes of troups. A generation of men was soon transformed into 'canon fodder'. Advances in chemical warfare led to the use of toxic gases, above all perhaps the infamous blinding Mustard Gas (Ypérite), incapacitating and smoking out soldiers from their positions, like cornered rats.
 Trenches carved into the landscape were soon transformed into quagmires, with both sides occupying a territory of reduced size, often even sharing the same passages, relying on the siege technique of the sap in order to take possession of enemy positions.
 Burrowed trenches and muddy, lunar landscapes were framed and demarcated by barbed wire, strewn like crazy metal tumbleweed whilst the rare intact tree that remained standing only served to underline the brutality of the situation. The final scene of the 1930 film, All Quiet on the Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque's book published in 1929 (banned and burnt in Nazi Germany, as was its sequel, The Road Back) reflects the monstrous incongruity of this war, pitting man against man, pitting man against humanity. Here is the last scene of the film with the moving 'butterfly' sequence...
Evidence of the consequent devastation and desolation visited on the region is plainly visible at the Butte de Vauquois, near Varenne. Huge funnel-shaped craters hacked up the land, whilst below the surface, galeries were dug into the butte by both sides, carving the much-coveted strategic point into a diabolical molehill, loaded with explosives to force the enemy to capitulate.
The picture is taken from Adolf Buchners' book "The Battle Of Vauquois", ISBN 3-9800750-4-4.
The Battle of Vauquois was one of the longest of the Great War, however there is a long litany of names that we associate with these four long years, some strangely pitturesque, others more somber...Chemin des Dames, Voie Sacrée, Douaumont and Tranchée des Baionnettes. Nevertheless it is often Verdun that comes to mind, with its horror captured on black and white images that seem burned onto our retinas. Sadly, the Great War was not to be 'the war to end all wars', as is said in the opening scenes of the 1979 version of All Quiet on the Western Front.
The First World War was precisely that, the first, the precursor to another, and whilst one generation of men was indeed lost in its prime, it left brothers and boys in its wake who would be grow up sufficiently simply to be slaughtered in World War II, barely twenty years later. Tragically, or perhaps mercifully, the second generation had little idea of this. It was this cruel twist of fate that is so poignant, its full impact demonstrated in Vera Brittain's A Testament of Youth. I watched the TV adaptation of the book when I was a teenager, and here is a beautiful clip created by someone else who was moved by the series...
Yet despite the depressing reality of the continual need for war, the vulnerability of man often so closely linked to his brutality, I would like to remain positive in the beauty of nature, and the nature of man. Of the famous Great War poem, In Flanders Fields, from a 1919 collection of poems by John McCrae, I would maybe change the last verse, so that the torch for war is simply taken up as the flame of Life. Although all the soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the life of their country, too many men died on both sides of a war that nobody won, creating a void, a no man's land in humanity.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.