It’s not possible to speak of what happened to the bodies of the men who died fighting in the First World War. Not directly, not in detail. Not in terms of muscle and bone, membrane and blood.
Instead, we have to approach it obliquely, as one of the speakers at a memorial event in Sheffield on Sunday did. She said that in 1917 it was realised that ‘the repatriation of those who died would be impossible’.
Sometimes we approach the unspeakable by way of the more-than-human world. Paul Nash did that with the landscapes he painted as part of his role of official war artist. Fascinated with trees from a young age, he later began to work them into his battlefield pictures. But where his pre-war tree pictures were full of life and vision, these were blackened and broken, leafless and limbless. They stand, in part, for the shattered bodies of soldiers.
Nash was not the only one to make an association between trees and men. In Sheffield, at least two groups of people clubbed together to plant trees as memorials to locals who had died in the war.
The first, in Oxford Street and Tay Street, were planted exactly 100 years ago yesterday to commemorate 77 former pupils of the local primary school, known affectionately as ‘the Crookesmoor boys’.
The war had not even ended: these may have been the first war memorial trees in the country.
I have a son of 22 and I don’t dare imagine our lives 100 years ago. But I can, just, imagine that if the worst had happened, a tree might provide some meaningful comfort. It would grow tall, it would outlive me, it would mark the rhythm of the seasons and offer beauty and shelter to other beings.
It would also be a focus for mourning. For if bodies cannot be repatriated, where do the families go to grieve?
There was a gathering on Sunday to mark the centenary of the planting of these trees. Among us were nine men who had agreed to dress in First World War uniform.
After a moving two-minute silence, each of the men went and stood under a tree that has been condemned by Sheffield City Council as part of the tree felling programme that I have written about in my last few posts.
Incredibly, Sheffield council wants to cut down nine of these trees, all of them perfectly healthy. They are deemed to be damaging the pavement.
In a press statement, the council said they would ‘replace the trees in time for Armistice Day’. How can you ‘replace’ a 100-year-old tree planted by a grieving community to remember a local lad?
It’s well known that when soldiers returned from the First World War, many of them could not speak of their experiences. In part this was due to trauma; in part it was because of a complete lack of awareness among civilians of the horrors that they had witnessed.
The disconnect between those who had fought and those who had not was so great that communication was impossible.
It feels as though there’s a similar, if less dramatic, divide between the people campaigning to save these trees and the officials who want them felled. Our ruling councillors do not seem to understand us when we try to explain why what they are doing is unacceptable.
We can only hope that this powerful piece of theatre will communicate at a deeper level the utter crassness of their plans.
More information about the tree felling programme here.