New poetry from Simon Armitage commemorates World War One casualties and survivors for Culture Show special
A hundred years have passed now and as a poet I feel bound by duty or tradition to reflect again on the catastrophic loss of life.Simon Armitage
In The Great War: An Elegy (8pm, BBC Two, Saturday 8 November) the poet writes a poignant poem connected to each of the stories he learns about on a journey that takes him from Northern France to the village of Brora in the Scottish Highlands.
The first stop on his journey of discovery and remembrance is the small town of Etretat in Normandy, Northern France, where he follows the story of nurse Edie Appleton, from Deal, Kent, through her detailed diary entries and sketches.
Her great nephew, Dick Robinson, from Blockley, near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, reads Simon’s poem, Sea Sketch, that recalls Edie’s care of dying and wounded soldiers and the comforting effect of the English Channel where she swam and from where she drew inspiration.
Simon then researches the story of Arthur Heath, a classicist at the university of Oxford, who died as a Lieutenant on the Western Front at the age of 28.
The poet reflects on the young man’s courage in the face of death and considers the loss of promising lives in his poem, Remains.
At the Imperial War Museum in London, Simon examines a poppy that was donated by the granddaughter of Joseph Shaddick, who either sent it from the Western Front or took it home to his wife Biddy in Barnstaple, Devon.
He takes the glass-encased memento, which has now lost its vivid red colour, as the inspiration for a new poem about the flower’s symbolism, Considering The Poppy.
In Emsworth, Hampshire, Simon speaks to Laurie Vaughan, whose father, Lieutenant Leonard James Bennett, a navigator, was captured when his plane went down on a reconnaissance mission.
He was imprisoned in Holzminden prison camp in Germany – but he and 28 other prisoners managed to tunnel out and he was among 10 who finally made it home. Laurie reads Simon’s poem Lazarus, which celebrates the great escape from a camp that had been regarded as escape-proof.
Simon then travels to Avondale Street in Lincoln – the home of Amy Beechey who lived there throughout the war. Amy saw her eight sons go off to fight – and five of them didn’t return.
He reads the letters from her soldier sons and recites his poem, In Avondale, that reflects on the series of tragic news being delivered to the long-suffering mother.
His penultimate stop is Helperthorpe, East Yorkshire, which is known as one of the ‘Thankful Villages’ that sent men to war – and welcomed them all home alive.
Simon speaks to Ted Atkinson, the grandson of wagoner Arthur Brown, who returned home after his war-time service, bringing horse-drawn provisions to the Frontline trenches.
Ted reads The Thankful, Simon’s poem that contrasts the settled rural life Arthur would have known in the East Yorkshire village with the devastated countryside of the Western Front.
Simon’s final destination is Brora, a village in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, which has an unusual memorial. Sixty one people from in and around the village lost their lives and they are commemorated with the Clyne War Memorial, a clock tower which chimes every 15 minutes and which bears the names of military personnel from the area who have died in various conflicts down the years.
Simon speaks to Jim Cunningham, the volunteer Keeper Of The Clock, and serving soldier, Colin Simpson, about the significance of the memorial. Simon ends his journey with a reading of his poem, Memorial, that references his own family connection with the war and the importance of remembering.
Simon said: "A century ago this year, the First World War began. The Great War – but great only in its scale of catastrophe. Well over 700,000 British soldiers died in the bloodbath that followed.
"I don’t have a head for numbers – that statistic is incomprehensible. It’s about human beings – people who lived and breathed just as we do and at the very least our memory of them should be kept alive.
"Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Robert Graves – I never fail to be affected and moved by their poems, especially those that reflect directly on the horror and brutality and drag the reader with them through the barbed wire and mud.
"But a hundred years have passed now and as a poet I feel bound by duty or tradition to take the opportunity to reflect again on the catastrophic loss of life and to think about how we commemorate the dead for the next 100 years."
• The Great War: an Elegy, 8pm, BBC Two, Saturday, 8 November. This Culture Show special is part of the BBC’s four year World War One centenary season.
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