New Zealand-based librarian Kat Moody read my post on Afterlives of Evidence, archives, and grief last week. She offers this response, exploring military history, natural disasters, landscape and memory.
Recently I had the opportunity at work to attend a course on character strengths run by the Mental Health Education Resource Centre. It’s great that these opportunities for healthcare professional development are being opened up to librarians. Last year I went to one of their courses on grief. This was an incredibly valuable session where I learnt a lot; one thing that stood out to me was that we don’t just grieve for people, we also grieve for places and things, particularly in times of change. Sometimes these aspects are inextricably linked.
Because I work in the centre of Christchurch, I am surrounded by sites of memory and sites of mourning. Yesterday I walked past the place where a mother and daughter were killed in the February 22nd Earthquake, on the bus I passed the sites of the CTV Building and the PGC Building where many, many people died. Sites such as these have become part of our everyday landscape. Our landscape is one of rupture and absence. The spaces where familiar buildings were, some being filled, some not. Sometimes we are unsure where we are. We are still grieving for the loss of our city. I have been working recently on Christchurch images – our digitised collections allowing us to refind places, stir memories and stories. What effect does it have on our grieving process to look back in this way?
Another place where death and landscape are closely interconnected is the Western Front. I first went to the Somme twenty years ago. Tired after a long day’s journey, we had nearly arrived when I first saw the Thiepval Memorial. Visible from all over the battlefield it commemorates more than 72000 British and South African soldiers who have no known grave. Seeing this memorial, with its stark inscription, ‘The Missing of the Somme’, was overwhelming. All those people missing. Many will be buried in unidentified graves as ‘A soldier of the Great War – known unto God’ (I don’t believe in God, but I’m glad God knows who they are), but far more are still out there in the soil of the now tranquil farmland, nature healing the once blasted landscape. Bodies continue to be regularly discovered, sometimes identified, and families found.
The rate of discovery has of course slowed. As the battlefields were cleared after the war’s end, body density maps were created – trench maps with numbers pencilled in, showing how many bodies were recovered in small sectors. Sometimes these ran into the hundreds. These maps are incredibly powerful evidence of the battle and the human cost of war.
There is at least one name on the Thiepval Memorial where the person in question has a known grave. The body of Alfred Henry Wellesley Burton was exhumed in 1932, as the memorial was being finished. He is buried in the cemetery next to the memorial. The exhumation report is astonishing, a true testament to the power of archives, intimate details of his life and death being revealed – the Saville Row breeches, the destroyed lower jaw. I have no way of knowing if his family have ever visited his grave, but I have and have also been to the approximate site of his death at Zenith Trench.
Which brings us back to battlefield tourism. Pilgrimages to the Western Front began not long after the end of the war and continue to this day. Added to the many cemeteries and memorials are visitor centres and museums. There’s still so much evidence of the First World War, still grief, but also interest and research and education.
What will the Western Front be like 100 years from now?
What will Christchurch be like?
What other layers of meaning and methods of memory will have been added?
Thanks to Kat Moody – contact Kat on Twitter or check out her other writing at the Library Whisperers site.