THE PITY OF WAR

As the author of “War Horse”, Michael Morpurgo has seen the battlefields of Flanders many times. But In Flanders Fields Museum still moves him

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011

The first time I went to Ypres, to In Flanders Fields Museum, housed in the Cloth Hall that forms one side of the town square, I was with Michael Foreman, the great illustrator. We were there to attend a conference on books for the young set against the background of war—I had written “War Horse” some years before, and Michael had written “War Boy” and “War Game”. We were already good friends, having collaborated closely on several stories. We had laughed together a great deal over the years, as friends do. Emerging into the harsh light of day after visiting In Flanders Fields Museum, we wept together.

As a schoolboy, I had read the War Poets—Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Edmund Blunden (who was a friend of my stepfather’s and often stayed with us at weekends). I had heard Britten’s “War Requiem”, and read “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and seen the film. I’d worn my poppy every autumn; stood cocooned in silence for two minutes every Remembrance Day. But none of these things touched me so intensely as this museum.

Since that first visit, I’ve been back several times: sometimes to research other stories set in the first world war, such as “Private Peaceful”; sometimes to perform these stories in folk-song concerts in village halls and churches all over Flanders. I feel I belong here. My grandfather Emile Cammaerts was Belgian: too old to fight in 1914, he boosted the morale of his compatriots by writing poems, some later set to music by Elgar. Ypres has become a place of pilgrimage for me. And always, when I step out into the bustle of the town square after passing once more through In Flanders Fields, I find myself lost in sadness.

On one visit I saw some English teenagers piling out of a coach to visit a cemetery just outside Ypres. As they wandered off into the field of ghosts, their loudness and laughter died, their hearts suddenly and deeply troubled by the endless rows of “Portland stone bonnet” gravestones with their bleak inscriptions: “Sergeant James Macdonald. Scots Guards. September 7th 1915. Gone.” These youngsters had probably read Owen’s words about “the pity of war”. Now they could comprehend something of what he meant, something of what he felt. It is the pity that wrenches the heart.

Just before Christmas, I came back to this same place, the Bedford House Cemetery, and to In Flanders Fields Museum. This time, Maggie Fergusson, literary editor of this magazine and a friend with whom I am working on a book about my life, came too, bringing Flora, her 12-year-old daughter. Flora was seeing all this for the first time, so I tried to talk her through it, to explain how the war began, how it was waged; to rationalise what we were seeing all around us.

In the cemetery, perhaps, it was some use for her to have me there. I did what I could to set the graves in some kind of historical context. It helped that we had also visited the place where the front-line had once been, and had looked out over the shallow valley where the Christmas truce had taken place in 1914. It’s now a wide green meadow, a farmstead with a wood beyond. A farmer’s daughter was out riding her horse, a buzzard mewing above us. Nowhere could have looked more idyllically peaceful. It helped too that we had stood under the Menin Gate gazing up at the names of the soldiers who have no known grave, all 54,896 of them, and had heard the buglers of the Ypres Fire Brigade sound the Last Post, as they do every evening at eight o’clock.

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