Pages of the Sea – lamenting the madness of 1914-1918 and the boys who never came home

Folkestone, Sunday 11th November, 2018: An amazing day. We woke early in a hotel built on the old brickfields and headed for the sands. Found what was probably the last parking space in town and made our way in pouring rain to join  Danny Boyle and lots of other people on the beach to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that marked the the end of the terrible conflict that was the First World War.

Wilfred Owen

Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project saw portraits of soldiers who never returned from the battlefields in France etched in the sand at low-water on beaches around the UK. They remained briefly as a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by so many until their images were erased forever by the incoming tide.

Film crew in the rain
Pages of the Sea: Crew in the  rain

Staging the commemoration in Folkestone was particularly fitting as the town was the embarkation point for millions of young men. It was the last British soil they stepped on before sailing across the channel for the horror and carnage of the Western Front. So many would never come home.

It was important for me to be there. I was born and brought up in Folkestone. I trained on the local newspaper, worked there for 15 years.  I haven’t lived there for more than three decades but it still feels like home to me. I have a lot of history there. Part of my family were descended from the local seafaring community – fishermen, lifeboat crew, even smugglers. The First World War changed everything. My great grandfather William Henry Stokes was among 61 people killed when, on 25th May 1917, the first German bombing raid to use aircraft rather than zeppelins, scored a direct hit on his greengrocers shop.

The portrait chosen for Folkestone was of the war poet Lieutenant Wilfred Owen who sailed twice for the trenches from the town’s Harbour Arm. He was killed on the French battlefields on 4th November 1918 – exactly one week before the end of the war.

His parents received the letter informing them of his death on the 11th November as the bells of victory rang out around them and their friends and neighbours danced in  jubilation in the streets.  Owen was just 25-years-old and almost completely unknown. The posthumous publication of his unflinching poems about the nightmare of trench and gas warfare brought him recognition and fame. He is now arguably the most admired and respected poet of the First World War.

Folkestone mermaid watches Wilfred Owen appear on the sand
Cornelia Parker’s Folkestone Mermaid surveys the image of Wilfred Owen on the sands.

Sadly the war to end all wars appears to have taught us nothing. Standing watching Danny Boyle’s beautiful tribute to the fallen I shed a tear at the knowledge that our country and much of the rest of  the so called civilised world seems more divided, more fearful and more ready to lash out at those they don’t want to understand than ever before.

We watched the early events in the rain for maybe 40 minutes before going for a very fine breakfast at one of the old fishermen’s pubs now rebranded as the Captain’s Table. We returned to the sands in slightly better but still appropriately bleak, weather.

As the clock ticked towards 11am a local choir assembled on the beach to recite The Wound In Time a poem specially written for the occasion by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Their voices were all but lost beneath the sound of the sea and salt-whipped breeze but the passion and rhythm of their words was clear. To help us along copies of the poem had been handed out to the assembled crowd.

The Wound in Time

It is the wound in time. The century’s tides,

chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;

the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching

new carnage. But how could you know, brave

as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?

The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.

Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love

you gave your world for; the town squares silent,

awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?

War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.

History might as well be water, chastising this shore;

for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.

Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

Carol Ann Duffy, 2018

It was a moving reading and, as Wilfred Owen’s image was washed away by the rising tide, we made our way back up to the town, walking up the Road of Remembrance – Slope Road as it was known back in 1914. The same road that so many had marched down as they headed for the harbour, the troop ships,  the Western Front and death.

Walking around Folkestone I mentioned to Hattie that we had seen no one that we knew. This was unusual. We often return to the old town and invariably see faces of old people who look remarkably like young people that we used to know. Then something very strange happened. We started walking down the cobbled stones of the Old High Street and bumped into a very familiar figure – Nell Leyshon, author, playwright and  friend from Bournemouth. She was down for the weekend, staying in Rye and exploring the delights of the South East.  Half an hour later we  experienced something even stranger. We had slipped into a local cafe for coffee and cake. A slim, shaven-headed figure slipped into a seat at an adjacent table. It was Irvine Welsh presumably in town to catch up with his old mate Boyle. Their collaboration as writer and director of Trainspotting back in the 1990’s had catapulted them both to fame.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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