18 April 2015

Soldier-poets of the Somme, 1916

The horrors of the trench, mud, heavy and inefficient weap­ons, tinned bully beef every day, dead horses poison gas and the sheer terror of waiting for death - these were the truths of the Great War. Perhaps all war was insane, but The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was war at its most insane, its most irrat­ional. If careful thinking and analysis were the basic elements of a moral life, what were these teenage volunteers doing, killing other families’ young teenage sons and being killed in turn.

In the past, the Battle of the Somme was certainly seen as the most famous battle of World War I, remembered for its endless blood­shed and its dismal territorial gains. In 2014 the BBC examined the literary importance of the Somme, noting that more writers and poets fought in it than in any other battle in history

Violets from Overseas: Portraits of Poets of the Great War, 
by Tonie & Valmai Holt, 1996

The BBC programme War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme details the experiences of the poets and writers who served in the battle. The BBC concentrated on the work of Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), Robert Graves, David Jones and Isaac Rosenberg, young men who were informed and transf­or­m­ed by the battle. Taken together, their experiences allow us to see this dreadful historical event as though we were there.

An important memorial in Poets' Corner inside Westminster Abbey is dedicated to 16 Great War poets. The slate stone slab with the names of the poets inscribed on it was unveiled exactly on the right date: 11th November 1985, the anniversary of the Armistice. The Wilfred Owen inscription around the names is short and heart-breakingly simple: “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity”

Now Martin Randall Travel will be examining the poets’ words once again in late 2015. “Blending history and poetry, this tour reveals the true landscape of war: locations, topography, events, but also hope, fear, anger, pain and love, all viscerally manifest in the poetry of WW1. The opening day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916, is taken as the starting point for the tour, with an exploration of the front line area and a study of the events of that day. This leads on to a wider examination of the nature of trench warfare and of the course of the war as a whole. Much has survived: trenches, shell holes and mine craters. The tangible remains of warfare and the pattern of cemeteries are now woven into the fabric of the modern landscape.

What sets this guided tour apart is the parallel exploration of the lives of those regular soldiers, volunteers and civilians who bequeathed to us the most emotionally potent body of poetry in English literature. This is not an exercise in literary analysis, however; the poems are placed in the context of the battlefield and of the lives (and deaths) of the many and varied individuals who wrote them. An actor reads the poems – sometimes at the site where they were composed, sometimes at the scene of the poet’s grave, sometimes at the place of his death or disappearance”. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg are the stars of a much bigger cast.

The Randall Tour will show how until the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, poetry presented a patriotic and heroic vision, of noble sacrifice for king and country. After the Battle of the Somme, nobility gave way to despair, disillusionment and hopelessness.

World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others, 
edited by Candace Ward, 1997

Interested readers might like to read the biographical details of the poets, in addition to examples of their work. Violets from Overseas: Portraits of Poets of the Great War, written by Tonie & Valmai Holt in July 1996. Or read The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, edited by M.G Walter in 2006. Or read Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, written by Tim Kendall and published in 2014. A Deep Cry: First World War Soldier-poets Killed in France and Flanders, written by Anne Powell, gives the short-life-and-death stories of all the British poets killed in northern France and Belgium in WW1.  The BBC tv programme War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme 2014 is well worth watching.


In July 1918, the poet Wilfred Owen returned to active service in France after convalescing from shell shock. Owen was killed in action on 4th November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, just a week before the signing of the Armistice ending WW1.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

slate stone slab for WW1 poets (on left)
Poets' Corner inside Westminster Abbey

14 April 2015

Rouen's Joan of Arc Museum - opened in 2013

The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) must have been horrendous. The endless battles dragged on between English Plantagenets and the French Valois, for control of French soil. In the latter part of the Hundred Years War, English forces occupied much of northern France, including Normandy and its capital Rouen, or were under joint Anglo-Burgundian control.

At first, the teenage Joan of Arc (c1412–1431) had inspired an unexpected series of successes against the English army south along the Loire. But then in May 1430 Joan was captured at Compiègne by the Burgundians, an English ally, and was moved to the city of Rouen; this was the city that served as the main English headquarters in France.

Joan was put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, a supporter of the Burgundians exiled in Rouen. It was clear they were going to execute the teenager, but first they wanted to publicly prove it was Sat­an who dictated her act­ions. Thus they could de­m­on­strate that King Charles VII had been a puppet of diabolical forces. The Bishop of Beauvais started proceedings in a tribunal of the In­quis­ition. A clear pol­itical issue was transformed into one of faith and after the Bishop declared her guilty, she was burned at the stake in May 1431 in Place du Vieux Marché (see photo below).

The young woman was later exonerated after a second posthumous trial in Rouen in 1456. Too late to help Joan, but at least many French citizens came to see her as a national heroine and a religious saint. 

Joan’s execution site
Place du Vieux-Marche in Rouen
Note the La Couronne restaurant with red flags, which opened in 1345.

Fortunately Rouen's C15th archbishop's palace survived the centur­ies. Renovation of this magnificent medieval palace, just next to the Cath­ed­ral, began in 2013, led by historians and museum curators. And in March 2015 the Joan of Arc History Museum opened to visitors. The €10 million project combined a modern exhibition space with enough hist­orical content to allow visitors to investigate the legend of France’s saint. The archbishop’s palace complex was a perfect site historic­ally-speaking; its hall was where Joan was sentenced to death. And the archbishop’s palace was a perfect site logistically-speaking since it provides a spacious museum with many exhibition spaces. Visitors can also inspect the palace’s crypts, its C15th tower, the early modern Aubigné chapel and state rooms.

One waxwork gallery inside the
Joan of Arc History Museum, Rouen

Isidore Patrois
The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1867
Musee des Beaux-Arts

Note that exhibitions within the museum are linked to the historic sites in other parts of Rouen. To have a fuller understanding of the part Rouen played in Joan’s history, visitors are encouraged to visit the Joan of Arc Tower in Rouen Castle where she was imprisoned awaiting her execution. This imposing tower is all that remains of the mighty castle that King Philippe Auguste had built (against the English) in the early C13th. Unfortunately for Joan, the English military was back in control of Normandy during this part of the Hundred Years War.

And the city centre is full of important religious and secular buil­dings. Visit Saint-Ouen and Saint-Maclou, for example. And examine the significant Gros Horloge/clock and the very impress­sive Gothic Law Courts. I also think the city’s Old Market is fascinating.

Church of Joan of Arc, 1979

Not everyone loves the contemporary Church of Joan of Arc, built in Rouen in 1979. It is modern in taste but at least it was designed to rescue and display gorgeous panels of C16th stained glass, taken from other Rouen churches. The guide suggested that the shape of the roof of the church and the small hallways evoked the flames of St Joan's execution pyre.

11 April 2015

Melbourne Hebrew Congregation and ANZAC Day memorials: 1915-2015

Although Melbourne was not planned out as a city until 1835, by 1841 there were already enough Jews to organise a religious quorum. The first organised Jewish congregation was soon established, based on a half acre site of land in Bourke St, right in the heart of the Central Business District. The synagogue’s own home page noted that in those early times, the synagogue was in a very convenient location. Ships coming from Europe came up the Yarra River as near as Elizabeth Street and the goods including textiles and clothing were delivered to many traders in both Elizabeth and Queen Streets, close to the synagogue precinct.

In December 1850, the new separated colony of Victoria broke away from NSW. In July 1851, gold was discovered in Central Victoria, in the gold field towns of Ballarat and Bendigo. And the demand for Jewish facilities grew even further with the arrival in Melbourne of 300 Jewish fam­il­ies from London and the Posen district of Prussia, all before 1855. The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation had to grow, and grow rapid­ly. Not surprisingly, this congregation modelled itself on the religious traditions of the Great Synagogue in Dukes Place Aldgate in London.

poster for the ANZAC Day memorial service

Eventually a better location and a bigger block were necessary. The foundation stone of the St Kilda Road building, designed by Melbourne architect and prominent member of the congregation, Nahum Barnet, was laid in April 1929. Barnet's plan was in line with that of overseas synagogues of the period, especially the classical Corinthian portico and stunning copper-clad dome. The interior was special because of its semi-circular seating for men on the ground floor and semi circular ladies' gallery on the first floor. The stained glass windows were a highlight.

This new Melbourne Synagogue in Toorak Rd was completed in 1930. Jewish communities in Europe were facing tragic times before and during WW2 and if anyone survived, they would want to come to the New World. By 1946 for the first time the congregation had a full membership; tens of thousands of European Jewish migrants were arriving.

classical facade 
Melbourne Hebrew Congregation
StKilda Rd Melbourne

85 years later, this grand synagogue is holding an event to commemorate the centenary of ANZAC Day. The 25th April marks the anniversary of the first major, and in some ways the most catastrophic military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during WW1.

An essay-writing competition for year 9 and 10 students from six country schools was organised well before ANZAC day this year. To compete, the students had to research and write about the experience of an ex-servicemen from their own community. Winners from each school will be hosted in Melbourne for six days in a series of events that will expose them to the extraordinary contribution made by Australians across the nation in general, and to Jewish partic­ipation in WWI in particular.

Now is a perfect time for the event; it has largely funded from the Melbourne Ports WW1 Grants Fund to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. And the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation synagogue is the perfect site for the event since it has strong links with Australia's history; two governors-general were former members, Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen, and there was a close affil­iation with Sir John Monash, regarded by many as Australia's greatest wartime general. Sir John Monash will be at the heart of this secular event, but so will many other soldiers. Attendees who lost relatives in World War I will also be given the opportunity to announce their names and honour their war dead. In addition, there will be a recitation of The Ode by the president of the Victorian Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, and a keynote address by Sir John Monash's descendant, Major General Jeffrey Rosenfeld.

semi circular seating for men (ground floor) and women (1st floor)
Melbourne Hebrew Congregation
StKilda Rd Melbourne

Students will be brought from their country schools to visit the Jewish Museum of Australia. This will give them the opportunity to: under­stand the Jewish community of 1914-18, especially Sir John Monash, tour the haunting Shrine of Remembrance, be shown through the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation synagogue, hear the synagogue's memorial service. And on Anzac Day itself, they will attend the dawn service.