“I never hear birdsong at Verdun”

I hadn’t attended a WFA webinar for ages. Then I spotted tonight’s subject, Hidden French Battlefields and thought it sounded interesting. And, though plagued with technical issues, interesting, it certainly was.

The talk was given by photographer Mike Sheil, who takes people on battlefield tours (when there’s no pandemic). The title of this post is a quote from Mike when asked a question about whether any of the places he visits maintain a sort of ethereal essence; any kind of palpable leftover memory of the fighting. I reckon it would have made a better title for his presentation. Or book.

Mike’s presentation took us along the oft overlooked French front as it extended further west. The western, western front, as he called it. I rather like the webinars which wander off the main track and head to less well trodden paths.

Mike showed us photographs of places where people usually cannot go. These places are mostly on private land, which aids to preserve and protect them. It seems a lot of people like to destroy historic remains. I don’t know why and Mike didn’t explain. I guess we should just be glad that these reminders are still there and people like Mike are allowed to, at least, photograph them.

One of the most interesting things about the talk were the carvings left by German, French and British soldiers at various times as the armies went back and forth, gaining then losing ground as the war ploughed on.

Possibly, the most amazing was a chapel in a cave. It featured a chi ro formed by three swords…which isn’t really very Christian.

There was also the high point in the French fighting when there was a mere 28 feet between them and the Germans, high in the mountains. Mike showed a photograph and it’s hard to imagine such close combat with guns. It reminded me of an earlier time when it was swords and shields.

It was also very cold with 100 metre snow drifts making everything white and impossible. He told us there were quite a few times that the two sides stopped fighting in order to survive the weather conditions. Which seems very odd to me. Presumably the soldiers who survived the sub zero nights then died the next day from fighting. Ironic?

There wasn’t a lot of humour in the presentation, except when Mike’s phone rang. After a lot of technical problems with his slides the sudden, shrill interruption by his landline had me in stitches. Fortunately, no-one could see or hear me.

He has a book, which he showed after being prompted by a question regarding its availability. It’s available from Amazon. It looks like a beautiful book though, Mike said, it also makes a good door stop. Obviously it has a lot of photographs in it, and it’s a big, fat glossy coffee table type volume. He also has a website, here.

An excellent subject for a webinar with some amazing photographs. An enjoyable hour and a half.

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