DID HEROES DIE HERE?
“From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds.”
– William Shakespeare (Henry V, Act IV, line 4).
A young child clambers down the stairs, his arm above his heard, held by his tentative mother. The son heads into a French trench from the First World War. To his eyes it is a maze, big and dangerous and exciting. The trenches – with their rusting metal lintels and slimy rocks and old snow – are not the scares in a landscape telling of the wounds of death. To this young fellow it is a sight of a playground.
To those of us who have had the history drummed into them they know what happened here. We don’t know the individual battles and perhaps there weren’t direct relations fighting here, but we understand what was going on. We have heard about trenches before – and this is what they’re like: Narrow, claustrophobic, muddy and damp; and yet we aren’t experiencing them with the smell of death.
The trenches are sinking back into the hill, it feels. Rusty barbed wire is everywhere; thick sheets of metal are warped and rusted, still acting as roofs to small bunkers and hide outs.
There are few people here – it’s not a big attraction with tour guides, entrance costs and tourists with big lenses. It’s solemn. There’s little talking – it seems to be avoiding the subject of death. We didn’t need brilliant French to understand the sign at the war cemetery – with its rows of humanless crosses and metal plaques – before the path to the trenches. We only had to recognise two things: the word “mort” – “death” – and 30,000.
It isn’t the site of victory. It is the site of a squabble between the Germans and the French. The Battle of Hartmannswillerkopf – a stalemate. Hartmannswillerkopf is a rocky spur 956m above sea-level in Alsace. The heaviest fighting lasted between January 19 and December 22, 1915. After that it was manned until the end of the war, but nothing changed here.
The German and French trenches are a literal stone’s throw apart. They would have been able to hear each other talking, I think, if they weren’t interested in keeping their voices down.
On the peak of the hill – which the trenches cross up to the top – there is a large metal cross, erected in 1919 in memory of what happened here.
There’s nothing glorious about this place.
It has been 100 years since the start of the First World War, which would struggle on, achieving little, until 1918. So much for it being the war to end all wars. Perhaps the 30,000 who died here on this hill in France (which, during the war was a part of Germany) didn’t die for some greater cause, for valour; but only for their country’s efforts to prove itself. Poor bastards.
THE TROUBLE WITH ENGLISH
The trouble with English is that there are a few words with connotations that are far too negative. Take the word “cult” for instance – it’s negative connotations are instilled in its powers to affect people.
If one is to use the word, one unleashes greater, divisive powers over people. Firstly are the defensive, and secondly are those who find an excuse to blast the “cult” for “what it really is”.
People need to calm down. “Cult” isn’t a nasty, hateful word. Why can’t it be a term of endearment instead?
Think about people who get up late every Sunday morning. This, under my proposed usage regulations, would be considered a cult movement. There are the participants who partake in a regular act of meditative quality (well, they do look like zombies when they finally get up), and for many they avoid admitting they’re a part of it all – another cult-like behaviour.
Calling this a cult isn’t a bad thing, is it? Only if you think the word “cult” extends beyond its use as a descriptive term and enters in the grey area of perceived negativity.
Or we just stop dodging the issue altogether and show a little more cult pride!