Published in The Guardian Saturday June 12, 2004
"Of course we're going to leave on time. We're army." It's early morning, and my father, step-mother and I have parked in a farmyard deep in the Essex countryside, where they live and he was brought up. Sixty years ago, my father Richard Motion was with the Essex Yeomanry, preparing for the invasion of Normandy. Now we're going back with a dozen veterans of the landings, and 20 or so other Yeomen. There they are now, milling round the bus in the silvery hedge light. Grey heads, walking sticks tapping the wet lane, sloped shoulders.
Like everyone born shortly after 1945, I saw the war flickering at the edge of my childhood. My father stayed in the Territorials, my TV screen was filled with soldiers, and so was my weekly comic (the Victor). But for all that, the fighting felt remote - all the more so because my father very rarely talked about it. I used to think this was his modesty and reserve - and so it was. Now I realise it was also because he didn't want the shadow of what he'd been through to fall across my own life. I've always been grateful to him for this, but I've also wanted to know his story. It's been one of the shaping paradoxes of my life.
He tried to enlist in 1939, eventually joined the Essex Yeomanry in 1941, and by the spring of 1944 was stationed at Bewley, outside Southampton. "We were confined to camp," he tells me as we wind round the M25 towards Dover. "So we knew something was about to happen. Terrible, but exciting too. We'd never seen action and we were ready. It was a bore, though, being cooped up waiting, and some of us couldn't stand it. They nipped out. Faces were seen at Southampton Races."
In the small hours of June 5 1944, my father's landing-craft, loaded with self-propelled guns, Bren-carriers and men, set off into the Channel.
"But the weather was impossible - everyone being sick, the sky black as sin, and this awful pitching." An hour or two later they were back in harbour, astonished that no German planes had seen the false start. Twenty-four hours later they went again. Did he think he was going to die?
"There wasn't much time to think, so I couldn't tell whether I felt lucky or unlucky. We started shelling, you see; we were busy. There was this clock-thing which combined the distance ahead with everything else we needed to know. We were firing on the defences, over the heads of the Dorsets and Hampshires, supporting them. The trick was for me to shout 'Fire' when the boat wasn't on the crest of a wave and pointing at the sky, or in a trough and pointing at the sea-bed. When we got to the beach, I thought as senior officer aboard I should be first off, so I climbed into the leading vehicle, which wasn't my own, as soon as the front splashed down. But the boat got stuck on a metal spike, so my carrier filled up with water and stalled. Everything in it floated back to England while I swam ashore. The others got off OK and I found my own vehicle pretty soon, where my batman gave me a change of clothes. If I was going to get killed, I wanted to be wearing dry trousers."
My father says all this very quietly. He was at Le Hamel, just outside the village of Asnelles, mortar and shell-fire hammering down. Ahead of him, a gently rising beach strewn with wounded men, bodies, burning equipment. "The beach was a traffic jam, that was the problem. There was a pill-box off to the right where we were meant to be going, and that held us up until one of our sergeants, Palmer, was ordered forward to take it out. A huge great cement blockhouse with a .88 inside, not like one of those piddly things you see on the English coast; it had already hit six tanks. Palmer got it with his second shot. Just popped the shell in through the letter-box. Then we were off."
Five hours later we've reached our digs in Bayeux. At supper someone mentions the poet Keith Douglas - this man knew another soldier who'd been at Christ's Hospital with Douglas, and played in the same rugby team. I've been thinking about Douglas, about the tough, excellent poems he wrote during the North Africa campaign in 1941-43 ("The Behaviour of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden", "Cairo Jag", "Desert Flowers"), about his brilliantly hard-edged account of tank warfare, Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), and about him leaving Egypt to land in Nor mandy with the Sherwood Rangers only yards away from my father.
I first read him at school, coming off the back of the first world war poets, magnetised by his difference from them. Wilfred Owen meets his enemy face to face in "Strange Meeting"; Siegfried Sassoon stands beside a corpse with "ungainly huddled" legs in "The Dug-Out", Isaac Rosenberg confronts "a queer sardonic rat" in "Break of Day in the Trenches". But Douglas is removed by temperament and machinery to a vital distance (his enemy appearing in "a dial of glass"). This, among other things, is what makes him feel so modern - at once fascinated by "this gentle / obsolescent breed of heroes" fighting alongside him, and detached from them. We can hear this in a poem he drafted before sailing on D-Day, "On a return from Egypt":
"To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle slow-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury".
It's the little things - the details that official ceremonies ignore, and the hand of history brushes over. "You've heard about the cattle have you?" asks one of the Yeomen. "Dead cattle everywhere after we landed, all with their legs sticking up, stinking to high heaven. It wasn't only the shelling, though. No-one was there to milk them, and they died. Nobody thinks to tell you that, do they? Not about the civilians either. Sometimes they were just lying dead in the road and we had to go straight over them." But my father is anxious to get off the beach at Asnelles, and tells me he moved on through Arromanche without much trouble, and kept going for the whole of day two.
Everything changed when they reached the open, rolling country we now come to. As dawn broke, the Yeomanry came under fire from two Panzer divisions concealed in a wood on top of a hill my father knew as .103. Our bus lumbers off a lane, and down a track between high hedges, which shrivel suddenly to give a spectacular view. There is the wood on the left, threshing in the brilliant sunlight. And there on the right is a small sea of bean-plants where my father aimed his gun. He is sitting beside me looking slowly round him, not speaking, but one of his companions, Tony Richardson, has got the microphone. "This was pretty rough," he says. "This was our initiation." The grey heads are nodding and murmuring in front of me, and one of them recalls that the remains of a Yeoman were recently turned up by a farmer hereabouts. They could tell his regiment from his cap-badge, and knew he was a gunner because they found a protractor among the bones. Following my father's gaze, I see an isolated barn as trouble, a church tower as an observation post, hedges as cover.
None of the Yeomen mentions Iraq. In fact they don't want to talk about it at all, and if I drag the subject into view, they're quick to defend the soldiers. But they don't like the idea of "world leaders" using their invasion of Nazi-occupied France as a way of justifying this new conflict. Over the last few days their voice has grown steadily clearer. They wanted to defeat Hitler, but never thought of themselves as the instruments of politicians. More as decent sorts, doing a brave thing, linked by a decent sort of patriotism. If people call them "heroes" they demur: this isn't the sort of language they use. Hearing them joking on the bus, it's easy to imagine what English soldiers were like 60 years ago - or at the battlefields of the Somme, or at Crécy, or at Agincourt for that matter, all of which we drove past on our way down. Blaming their superiors for cock-ups, looking out for one another, living on jokes and ironies. They have the same spirit that Edward Thomas wrote about in 1915 and 1916:
"Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind".
The Commemoration Service at the Bayeux cemetery we attend this morning crystallises all this. When we've already stood in the gruelling heat for two hours, we are told president Jacques Chirac will be arriving late, and a scornful cheer rises. The Yeomen say these big services mean less to them than the smaller-scale things, like the one we travel to next by the blockhouse at Asnelles - the one destroyed by Palmer's tank. The village is crammed, hundreds of veterans weaving among tourists, locals, well-wishers, with modern landing-craft lying off-shore, and warships flashing in the lavender distance. As we gather round the Yeomanry Memorial for speeches and wreath-laying, someone murmurs "another corner of a foreign field", casting his eyes round the circle of bowed heads. Rupert Brooke's phrase, so often derided as sentimental, seems simply accurate here. A few hundred yards behind me, the beach where my father landed is buried under an enormous crowd, churning between beach cafés and the retreating tide.
The morning after the night before; it might be an anti-climax. But as we bus off under another cloudless sky, past workmen dismantling stands, there's a mounting excitement. Without the crowds we can see the land for what it was, and feel the pressure of the past more strongly. At Asnelles now the beach is deserted except for a gaggle of children racing sand-yachts. I stroll beyond them towards the place where my father waded ashore, and turn round to see him standing outside the blockhouse. His white hair gleams like metal. Above the memorial, on the gun-slit, there's a fragment smashed out of the cement where Palmer's first shell bounced off. I pick up a smooth stone from the sand, put it in my pocket, then look up again to see my father disappearing round the back of the blockhouse, where the Germans who survived the explosion staggered out with their uniforms on fire. As I set off to find him, a young woman trots past me on a pony, then breaks into a gallop.
The two time-schemes in my head are distinct now: the hot holiday present and the suffering past. We turn inland, following the route of my father's advance, then stop at the cemetery at Tilly-sur-Seulles to visit the graves of some Yeomen. I slip off to stand at the grave of Douglas, who was killed near here on June 9. He was 24. Someone has propped a single large poppy against the headstone, and the card reads Vergissmeinnicht (Forget-me-not) - the title of one of his best poems, and the only word of German I've seen or heard since we arrived. It's a poem that lingers over the details and humiliations of decay, though Douglas was killed by a shell-burst which left no visible mark on his body:
"But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt".
What would Douglas have written, had he lived? How would his Normandy poems have affected our sense of the war? In his North African work there's an exceptional pragmatism. "There were several of them scattered about," he says in Alamein to Zem Zem , coming across the bodies of some Libyan troops, "their clothes ... seeming to have wrapped themselves round the places where arms, legs, or even heads should have been, as though with an instinct for decency. I have noticed this before in photographs of people killed by explosive." That's the authentic, cool Douglas note, in his poems as well as his prose, and it would have captured a time of the war that produced strikingly few good poems. Why so? Partly because the soldier-poets that survived were too busy fighting and driving forward into Germany.
This, perhaps, is in part what distinguishes them from the first world war poets, so much of whose time was spent in interminable waiting. Alun Lewis, who joined the Royal Engineers in 1940, dedicated a poem "To Edward Thomas" after making a pilgrimage to Thomas's home, close to his training camp in Hampshire, and expressed something of his sense of how difficult the legacy of the earlier generation was to live up to: "Climbing the steep path through the copse I knew / My cares weighed heavily as yours, my gift / Much less, my hope / No more than yours."
He had Thomas in mind too when he wrote "All Day It Has Rained", one of the best of the second world war poems and one that takes place far from the scene of battle, but far too from the poet's wife and home:
"And I can remember nothing dearer or more to my heart
Than the children I watched in the woods on Saturday
Shaking down burning chestnuts for the schoolyard's merry play,
Or the shaggy patient dog who followed me
By Sheet and Steep and up the wooded scree
To the Shoulder o' Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long
On death and beauty - till a bullet stopped his song".
Lewis's war too was ended by a bullet - fired by his own hand, in Burma in 1944.
I've always thought that it would be a mistake, and presumptuous, to try and possess that time in my poems. It doesn't belong to me, however fascinating I might find it. But I've also wanted to map its effect on my father - to sympathise with him in my imagination, to measure the distance between his life and mine, to perform my own acts of remembrance. Perhaps some of my contemporaries - Ian McEwan and Andrea Levy, whose Small Island this week won the Orange prize, are two conspicuous examples - are driven by some of the same mixed feelings. We want to feel our inheritance on our pulses, and understand its power in our present.
The bus rumbles on, through Aunay-sur-Odon and up the long wooded slope of Mont Pinçon, the "Normandy Alp", from where we can look clear back to the sea. Winding off the mountain, we pause at an innocent-looking jink in a lane. This is where Vere Brook, the second-in-command of the Yeomanry, was killed by a Panzer as he drove forward in his half-track to make a recce. Charles Raymond was alongside him in a jeep, and is with us now. He stands between a hedge and a buckled, buttercup field with the sun roaring down on his bare head, banging his leg where a bullet went through his thigh. "There used to be a ditch here. I lay in that until a Typhoon appeared and took out the Germans. Then I hopped it back to our boys." He laughs. "Three miles. I don't know how I did it."
Sixty years ago, Douglas had one day left to live. Three years earlier he had asked people to "Simplify me when I'm dead", and wondered whether they would "see if I seem / substance or nothing: of the world / deserving mention or charitable oblivion". He has his answer, although he, Lewis, and the other second world war poets have never achieved the same degree of popular recognition as the poets of the first world war, partly because, Douglas excepted, they were not as good, but also perhaps because readers who admired the work produced during the first world war were unprepared for the 1939-45 poets' difference from them.
On the road back to Calais everyone is silent, saying their good-byes, locking away their memories. By the time we've crossed the Seine they're chatting again, but not about the war now. "Look at that!" A huge lorry carrying tree trunks. "Did you get that?" A sweet-scented cloud billowing behind a tractor cutting hay. I sit across the aisle from my father and his wife, listening to them doing the crossword while I start writing.