Do I spend too much time looking into the darkness that is half of our lives or is it only right to be attentive to the more shadowy parts of both our present and past ? Certainly just now, as so much is being written in commemoration of the First World War, there is little cause for brightness even if it might well be a time for succeeding generations to seek clarity wherever it can be found. My grandfather, William Wasney Heseltine, was gassed in the trenches of Northern France in the last weeks of the war and my eponymous father, born a few months before, never met his own father. Nor did he ever speak of him, he knew little of his war or his death and never visited his grave in Rouen. For me, another Wasney, the advent of the internet made it possible to trace the location of the cemetery and to track his artillery garrison as it edged across the muddy fields of Picardy in the autumn of 1918.
Was my coming to this part of France some sort of expiation for my grandfather’s death, some continuity, familiarity, recognition or understanding ? By making my home further southwest I had already felt I was joining my grandfather and swelling the population of Wasney Heseltines in France generally. The internet failed me when it came to tracking down the path of his particular unit, the entire British army seems traceable but not the details of this officer’s unit. I resorted to visiting one lonely small cemetery after another scouring the small collection of windy hilltop gravestones to find casualties belonging to the 284th Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery to track their progress by the the numbers of the dead they left in their wake. My grandfather was gassed and taken to a field hospital to die but it seemed that on the approximate day of his injury his unit were seeing action on the road to Montbrehain.
Of course there is little to actually see now but there is plenty to feel, ghosts are everywhere. The Aisne landscape is essentially the same albeit without the ghastly war torn character that is so familiar in the contemporary photographs of splintered trees, the soup of sodden earth, bodies and blood that constituted the uncertain ground. Instead, the ghostly November light illuminated endless piles of beet stacked up in the mist and everywhere the same terrible mud, the same sticky clay that smeared both the beet and the feet. These arable trophies were everywhere stacked up like skulls and bones exhumed from the mass grave that still offered up the dead a century later.