Saturday, 9 May 2020

Guernsey: Liberation Blog 2020

Today, 9th May, is Liberation Day on the Bailiwick of Guernsey. 75 years ago a small detachment of British soldiers and sailors disembarked at St Peter Port, to be greeted with relief and rejoicing by the remains of the local population. Their arrival brought to an end five years of German occupation, the last year of which had reduced islanders and occupiers alike to near starvation. 

Liberation Day has been commemorated  ever since, and this year’s 75th anniversary should have prompted a special celebration, but Coronavirus has had the inevitable consequence that the streets of St Peter Port, the island’s harbour and main town, will seem almost empty - at least by comparison with all the preceding anniversaries.

Sarnia, chière patrie, bijou d'la maïr, 
Ile plloinne dé biautai, dans d'iaoue si cllaire 
Ta vouaix m'appeule terjous, mon tcheur plloin d'envie, 
Et mon âme té crie en poine, mes iars voudraient t'veis.

Sarnia; dear Homeland, Gem of the sea.
Island of beauty, my heart longs for thee.
Thy voice calls me ever, in waking, or sleep,
            Till my soul cries with anguish, my soul aches to weep.

I’m unable to say whether Guernsey’s inimitable patois of English and Normandy French is just a dialect, but it does no harm for mainly monoglot Brits like me to hear an alternative identity asserted through what sounds like a local language. The pride the Islanders have in the fact that they have a local language reminds me of the proud but gentle Irishman Hugh, in Brian Friel’s play Translations, who describes his native Gaelic thus:

a rich language, full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception – a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to ... inevitabilities.  

It’s no coincidence that the best known novel about Guernsey in the time of war is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008). During the occupation, pies consisting of mashed potato, peelings, and beetroot, were first a staple and, later, a rare treat.

Many of the 2,800 Guernsey deportees found themselves interned in camps in southern Bavaria such as Biberach, though some were sent to Buchenwald.  The treatment of Islanders during the war – both those on occupied Guernsey and those deported to Germany – is still a contentious subject, but the stories of those who survived and of those who died are being carefully researched and made accessible. The island itself has become a prime site for ‘occupation archaeology’.

I was in St Peter Port myself, 10 years ago, to attend the 65th Liberation Day celebrations.  For lovers of fancy dress, the Church Parade would be hard to better. It was led by the Guernsey Concert Band, all shining braid and sounding brass; then came the Lieutenant Governor in his plumed cocked hat and the Bailiff in his ermine-fringed purple robes, each cutting a splendid figure, pursued by the Island’s senior judges and Jurats; following them, a platoon of Chelsea pensioners and a parlourful of mayors representing the towns - mostly from the north west of England - to which 5000 child evacuees from Guernsey had been dispatched in 1940. 

From near the harbour came the sound of drums. Under the gaze of Prince Albert, whose statue overlooks the slipway at which he and Victoria had disembarked in 1846, a group of happy drummers swayed and drummed to a decidedly Latin beat. This was where Pageantry segued seamlessly into Carnival: Guernsey’s own Samba Burros were paying tribute to the small band of British servicemen who had marched up this same slipway on 9th May 1945. Even the name of these crowd-pulling percussionists was apt for today: ‘Burros’ are donkeys, and in Guernsey the donkey symbolises the stubborn resistance and independence of the Islanders. One defining image of the Liberation is a cartoon showing a donkey kicking a jackbooted Nazi off the island into the sea.

Once the street processions were in full swing, I climbed away from the harbourside, away from the town, making my way up to Fort George, the garrison built in 1812. Come with me. Eventually (for the path is not obvious) I reach the Garrison Cemetery, one of the strangest cemeteries in Europe, but visited by few people – least of all perhaps on Liberation Day. It is located on a south-facing slope, with a view of the sea glimpsed between pine trees, and outside the entrance stands a Cross of Sacrifice, that familiar landmark of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery (CWGC); indeed there are a few First World War graves, including soldiers of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry who had been wounded but managed to get repatriated and died on their home soil.  So far, so British; but what I see next is a surprise:

 111 GERMAN SOLDIERS OF THE WAR 1939-1945
REPOSE AT THIS BRITISH GARRISON CEMETERY

As I stand at the top of the cemetery slope, it is clear that the plot has been carefully landscaped: British graves on the right, German on the left. The 111 headstones of the German graves are the same height as the CWGC headstones but discreetly arched, not rounded, at the top. And presiding over the whole cemetery is a great white Germanic cross, carefully framed by banks of blue hydrangeas.

The cemetery was laid out in this way in 1963 to designs by a Stuttgart gartenarchitekt, Richard Schreiner, but I should love to know who was responsible for the greatest surprise(s) of all. Just inside the entrance, on my right, is a simple wall with a bronze door set into it. The door is decorated with relief images of people, some alone, some as couples, visiting a cemetery (small crosses are dotted at their feet). But when I open the door, expecting at least to find an opening of some kind, there is only a second door. Once I’ve opened both doors, I am confronted with a kind of triptych on which are inscribed the name, rank and dates of birth and death of all 111 German soldiers. 

Even this is not the strangest surprise. On the wall to the right of the door is another inscription, in German and English:

LEBEN LEBT JENSEITS DES GRABES
LIFE LIVES BEYOND THE GRAVE

The words are those of Edward Young, from his poem Night Thoughts (1742-1745). Why should a German memorial feature a quotation from an obscure English poet? I’ll suggest three reasons. In his day Young was greatly admired, but by the end of the nineteeth century, he had been so nearly forgotten that even Q (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) omitted him from his magisterial Oxford Book of English Verse (1900). Yet he was not forgotten in Germany. Young’s belief in the power of human individualism, inspiration and genius to create great works of art and science was quickly endorsed by the Sturm und Drang movement: Goethe and Schiller, in particular, admired Young’s poetry and ideas.

My second suggestion is a simple, perhaps naïve, one: that the German designers of the entrance to this British cemetery thought Young’s quotation would be both an apt and a tactful one – a conciliatory gesture, if not exactly a gesture of reconciliation.

Here is my third. I have described Young as ‘so nearly forgotten’ in England, but he was not entirely so. During the First World War, the poet Edmund Blunden treasured his copy of Young’s poems while at the Front, and quoted from them in his Undertones of War, one of the seminal texts of the Great War, published in Britain in 1928 and in translation in Germany in 1936. Although determined to be a good officer, looking after his men, leading by example, he refused to show hatred for the German soldiers against whom he was fighting. On one occasion, when he explained to colleagues ‘my convictions that the war was inhumane and useless’, a general demanded to know ‘why I wasn’t fighting for the Germans?’ to which he replied that it was only due to his having been born in England, not Germany.  Undertones was admired in Germany, and I cannot help wondering if Blunden’s admiration for Edward Young may not indirectly have played a part in the choice of ‘Leben lebt jenseits des Grabes’ for Guernsey.

Young’s words, ‘Life lives beyond the grave’, have today an unexpected and startling relevance to Blunden. It has recently been announced that a previously unpublished poem Blunden wrote in 1945 to mark Victory in Europe has been acquired by the Imperial War Museum. It is now available online and you can read it for yourself here. It was read on BBC 5 Live yesterday. The poem celebrates ‘Reunion, restoration, freedom deep and true’. You couldn’t sum up Guernsey’s Liberation Day better than that.

Adrian Barlow

I have written about Edmund Blunden before:

I have also written about the Channel Islands before:

7 comments:

  1. Thank you, as ever. There is a lot to relish, a lot to think about and a lot to remember.

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  2. Adrian, This piece has given me much to think about, and as you say, is full of surprises. From your previous blogs, and from various articles about Guernsey, I've known just how miserable life was for the islanders—and even in the end for the occupiers. (So much misery inflicted, we have to say, to no end whatsoever—which always seems to me to be the true tragedy of war.)

    But how strange is the German cemetery—and what do the islanders think of its being there? Such a cemetery in Crete, for example, is completely unimaginable. And then the relief sculpture on the door—no mean artistic endeavour . . . I find all this somehow dumbfounding.

    I'm much intrigued by Edmund Blunden’s attitude to war—and his reply to the general’s question gives rise to something I've often thought about racists: “You too could have been born an Afro–Caribbean, a Catholic, a Palestinian, or into any racial group which happens the subject of your hatred.”

    “Undertones of War” has been on my mental “to read list” for decades and I wonder if I’ll ever read it. I wonder too abut Victor Hugo’s “The Toilers of the Sea.” I've only read two thousand page–plus novels, and one of them was Norman Denny’s wonderful translation of “Les Misérables” (Folio and then Penguin books). But I wonder, is there is a good translation of “The Toilers”?

    The cartoon is wonderful! And drawn in the spirit of so many wartime cartoonists.

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    1. Very pleased you enjoyed the cartoon, Peter. I agree, it does capture a distinctive wartime style. I can’t help you, I’m afraid, about a good translation of ‘The Toilers’, but I strongly recommend ‘Undertones of War’.

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    2. Thanks for this, Adrian. I see that the first sentence reads “I was not anxious to go.” Somehow I need no more to tell me that this will be a fine book to read.

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  3. Adrian this is so interesting. I celebrated liberation day as we have always done as a family with a window display of bunting (homemade card flags this year!) Guernsey tea in the garden and prayers of thankfulness in patois and English. I too have been to town many times to stand and remember and to rejoice and the charged emotion is still almost overwhelming. I think the memorial has been written up in the guernsey society review I know my father photographed it for something on one of our visits and as most of these trips included researches for articles I imagine this is what it was for. I will look. Incidentally my mother used to say I had inherited the donkey characteristic of determination and stubbornness!

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  4. I was really interested in this post, Adrian. Thank you. I had not realised that the islanders had been transported to prison camps in Germany nor really understood how deeply they had suffered and your blog pointed to a day of commemoration which could have passed us by. when we were in Tallinn last summer, it was interesting to see the war memorials to the Germans as well as to the British and the Estonians.

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