Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Through Mud and Barbed Wire


The woods of Mort Homme. Autumn leaves cannot fully mask the horror of this place…


At first glance, the countryside to the north west of Verdun is quite beautiful, undulating hills, small villages, woodland glorying in its autumn colour, the fallen leaves rustling beneath your feet. Then, as you turn north in the village of Chattancourt, onto a lane that appears little more than the back entrance to a farm, splattered with mud, you see ahead of you a line of low hills, crowned with woodland. Your lane winds upwards towards a terrible silence.  

It is a place of peace, and yet you want to shudder. It’s not just the monuments tucked among the trees – although they are poignant enough – it is the woodland itself.  The ground is uneven and you start to recognise that, even now, after a century of erosion, you are walking into the memory of hell, among shell holes and trenches.  During 1916, the hill, appropriately known as Mort Homme, saw one of the most intense battles of the First World War. Literally thousands of shells landed upon it every day, and for month after month its heights saw the front line move a few yards one way and then the other. It was the point at which the French were determined, at whatever cost, to halt the German advance. It became a landscape shaped and re-shaped by the exploding shells, and with them the spumes of mud and body parts as thousands of men were hurled against one another. Worse than that, perhaps, was that the vast majority of them never actually engaged the enemy on those heights; they simply went into the forward trenches and waited and were blown to pieces.


A communication trench, just south of Fort Douaumont. The forest here masks the expanse of shell-holes though which this trench wound its way. Deeper than it appears now, the trench was reinforced with concrete slabs between the still-visible posts.

From Mort Homme, you can look westwards towards Hill 304 and Avocourt Wood, and eastwards towards the more famous battle sites around Fort Douaumont and the huge cemeteries and Ossuary, where you can peer through small, square windows, set close to the ground, at the heaped bones of 138,000 men, from both armies, who could not be identified and given their own grave. Here then lie, heaped up according to the part of the battlefield from whose mud they were pulled.


The Ossuary and part of the cemetery at Douaumont.

And why am I here? Because the two men who influenced me most, whose books inspired me to study philosophy and theology back in the 1960s, were both here in 1916 – two profound thinkers from utterly different backgrounds, separated by no more than a few hundred yards of mud. One was a French Jesuit, working as a stretcher bearer across the hills of Mort Homme and 304, and whose regiment took part in the final assault on Douaumont. The other was a German Protestant chaplain, who on arrival wrote home to his father that ‘hell rages all around us.’  Both men survived the carnage of Verdun, both looked back on it as a most significant point in their lives, both had their thinking shaped by its horrors.

Their story seemed utterly relevant to me, back in the 1960s and 70s, as the world was overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war and the television showed images from Viet Nam of burning villages and helicopter gunships.  Their story seems equally relevant now, as we contemplate the horrors of the Middle East, and struggle with questions of national identity and interest, within Europe and the wider world.  

I’m working on this for my next book, provisionally entitled 'Through Mud and Barbed Wire'. This is personal, but it also feels far more important than anything that I’ve written before, touching on the great sweep of religious and philosophical ideas through the 20th century; ideas shaped by the experience of mud and barbed wire, rather than any academic setting.  What can religion mean after the experience of Verdun? How do you maintain a sense of your own identity and value when everything around you is disintegrating? And how do acts of individual courage and sacrifice relate to our overall view of the universe and our place within it?

At one level, it is the story of two men, at another it is the story of each one of us, as we struggle to make sense of life.  


 And, if I don’t seem to find time at the moment to write for this blog or website, it is because I am trying to make sense of 1916 - from the perspective of 1966, and in anticipation of 2016.