News From the Front is a blog series by PeaceQuest volunteer Irene Mangoutas. Click here to see the other posts in the series.
Although a few days late for Remembrance Day, I thought that this would be the perfect time to discuss one of the most fascinating memorial sites on the Western Front: Lochnagar Crater.
Jay Winter, one of the Great War’s most dedicated and prolific historians, offers a reflection on the nature and meaning of memorialization, especially in the context of the landscape of the Western Front. In Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995), he observes that “remembrance is part of the landscape. Anyone who walks through northern France or Flanders will find traces of the terrible, almost unimaginable, human losses of the war, and of efforts to commemorate the fallen” (1). What Winter identifies, here, is the nature of the Front as a living landscape, which serves as an eternal memorial through which we who remember can walk, and with which we can engage, physically and emotionally.
There are, along the Western Front, any number of brick-and-mortar memorials, which serve as gathering places to remember the Great War. Two of these, to which I will return in future blog posts, are the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing and the Menin Gate Memorial, on the Somme and in Ypres, respectively, which contain the names of the missing soldiers whose bodies were never recovered on the battlefield. These are, of course, incredibly moving spaces for collective memorialization, where those of us who wish to remember can gather, and perform the work of mourning with like-minded folk. (It is notable, for example, that the Last Post is played at the Menin Gate Memorial every single evening without fail since the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918.)
In this post, however, I want to discuss a different kind of memorial site: one that is part of the very landscape of the Front itself. There are many such sites: graveyards, of course, which populate the long line of the Western Front; and physical remnants, too, of the War’s lasting effects on the landscape: shell holes; old trench lines; shell casings and other materiel, left daily by curious tourists and long-suffering farmers, on roadsides bordering the fields of the Somme River Valley and the Ypres Salient. As Winter reminds us, the devastating aftereffects on the landscape of France and Belgium remain as indelible scars on the surface of the earth, and most notable of these scars on the living landscape is Lochnagar Crater.
Doubling as testimonial to the scale of “unimaginable, human losses” (Winter Sites 1) and as a natural memorial to the fallen, the Lochnagar mine is located just south of the village of La Boisselle on the Somme, and constitutes “the largest man-made crater created in the First World War on the Western Front” (“Lochnagar Mine Crater”). The mine was laid by the British Army’s 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers underneath a German strongpoint called “Schwaben Höhe.” The mine was exploded two minutes before 07.30 am Zero Hour at the launch of the British offensive against the German lines on the morning of 1st July 1916. […] Despite the successful blowing of the mine and the damage caused to the German strongpoint, the German defenders managed to get into well-placed positions to fire at the advancing British soldiers. Within half an hour of the start of the infantry attack many hundreds of them were already dead or wounded. (Ibid)
Winter refers to the Battle of the Somme as “that vast bloodletting … which the German writer Ernst Junger termed the birthplace of the twentieth century” (The Legacy of the Great War). The crater has since become a memorial site to that battle, maintained by the non-profit organization Friends of Lochnagar Crater, founded in 1989 by Richard Dunning. Each year, the group hosts a memorial service on 1 July at 7:28 AM—a ritual that precedes the founding of the group, with the first ceremony hosted by Dunning on 1 July 1979: “[t]he first Ceremony was attended by 6 people. It was a very simple affair and, of course the Cross was absent, the first cross being installed in 1986, in time to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Somme Battle” (“July 1st Ceremonies”). The ceremony has grown considerably over its almost 40 years, “attracting up to an estimated 1,500 people to the tiny French village of La Boisselle. The Ceremony commences at 7:28 am. Far too early for any but the most dedicated of pilgrims” (Ibid).
On 1 July, 2015, I was one of those pilgrims. As I have already mentioned, that summer I participated in a five-day tour of the Western Front, organized by Bartlett’s Battlefield Journeys. Our tour guide was Bill McQuade, a veteran of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and wonderful guide. He informed us that our wake-up call that morning would be at exactly 0600 hours. After a quick, extremely sleepy breakfast at our hotel in Albert—even the restaurant was still closed—we drove to La Boisselle and arrived, as Bill informed us, at 0700 hours.
The experience was incredible. The crater was much larger and deeper than I could have predicted from photos. Around the perimeter walkway were small plaques that commemorated fallen Great War soldiers. We were told to spread out along the perimeter of the crater, so that the we more or less surrounded it. At the base of the crater was a large red poppy, and at one end of the perimeter, a large cross. Each of us was given a handful of red cloth poppy petals to hold onto. The ceremony began promptly at 7:28 AM.
The Ceremony lasts about an hour, commencing at 7:28 am with the firing of a maroon and the blowing of whistles (whistles were blown in the trenches to signal to the men that they must “go over the top” to face the machine guns). As soon as the maroon is fired, a lone piper, from the far side of the Crater, walks towards the cross playing “The Battle of the Somme.” (“July 1st Ceremonies”)
The ceremonies are similar from year to year, but each ceremony is unique. In ours, we listened to a chilling performance of the song “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”; to poetry readings, some from soldiers that had died on the Somme; and to commemorative speeches. Finally, we came to the end of the ceremony.
I was not prepared for this part. As the ceremony came to an end, young children began to scatter red cloth poppy petals into the crater. The Somme Pipe Band played “The Lament,” and the rest of us were invited to scatter our own petals into the crater. We were reminded that, “in all probability, a young man lost his life on the spot where the petals landed” (“Poppy Petal Scattering”). We were then asked to join hands around the crater, forming a human chain around its perimeter. I later found out that this practice began in 2010: “the congregation were invited to stand around the rim of the Crater and to hold hands to form a complete unbroken human chain in an act of fellowship and reconciliation” (Ibid).
I often remark that 2015 was the summer that I spent crying my way across the Western Front. It was a tremendously moving experience, and one that often made me feel unworthy of retelling the stories of these young men in my research, faced as I was with the living proof of their short lives and violent deaths on the very fields on which I walked. As I stood there on the morning, on 1 July 2015, 99 years after the Battle of the Somme commenced, holding hands with a young Frenchman on one side and a little girl on the other, crying and listening to the pipers’ song, I was reminded again of Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” (1914), an excerpt of which we recited multiple times each day on that tour, over grave sites and memorials:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them. (13-16)
Irene Mangoutas is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. Her dissertation, titled ‘Après la guerre’: Alternate Spaces of the Great War in Modernist and Contemporary Memory-Texts, addresses nostalgia, memory, and commemorative practices in interwar and contemporary British fiction and film about the First World War. She also specializes in neo-Victorian literature, film, visual art, and culture; the ‘long nineteenth-century’; the intersection(s) between warfare and fantasy; and children’s literature. Her departmental page is available here, and you can follow her on twitter @irenemangoutas.
Binyon, Laurence. “For the Fallen.” 1914. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57322/for-the-fallen. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.
“July 1st Ceremonies at the Lochnagar Crater.” Lochnagar Crater, http://www.lochnagarcrater.org/Ceremonies.html. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.
“Lochnagar Mine Crater Memorial, La Boisselle, Somme Battlefields.” The Great War: 1914-1918, http://www.greatwar.co.uk/somme/memorial-lochnagar-crater.htm. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.
“Poppy Petal Scattering and Circling the Crater.” Lochnagar Crater, http://www.lochnagarcrater.org/CeremonyPetals.html. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.
Winter, Jay, ed. The Legacy of the Great War: Ninety Years On. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2009.
Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.