Two years ago I went on a WW1 Battlefields tour trip. We visited a lot of sites in the Ypres area and across the Somme. Among the cemeteries we visited was Langemark. It’s a small place, just off the side of the road, and if you didn’t know it was there it would be difficult to spot. It is a rare sight on the WW1 landscape: a German cemetery.
If you have driven through Belgium and northern France, you will probably have seen numerous war cemeteries. There are almost an uncountable number through Flanders and the Salient. Small clusters of bright, creamy headstones and crosses. Mini cenotaphs and mausoleums. Some mark where units fell during operations and missions. Some are planned and gather the dead from different local events. But they are everywhere. On sunny days the stones catch that light and beam it out. On overcast days they huddle like ghosts, still faintly glowing in the murk. They are VISIBLE. Rightly so. I am in no way saying they shouldn’t be. The War Graves Commission has done and continues to do an amazing job marking and recording all these sites; maintaining them and allowing visitors the chance to reflect, commemorate and connect with family they lost.
Langemark, though, is a different affair. Against the hundreds of ‘Allied’ war memorials and cemeteries in Belgium, there are thirteen German ones. That’s all. The guide who took us to Langemark was Belgian, and he was clear as to the reason why: the Belgians didn’t want them. I can understand that: here were the casualties of the enemy. Here were the reason so many of their own had died. Many fallen German soldiers were of course repatriated. But the ones that remain are spread between these thirteen cemeteries.
Where the bright, white headstones of the British, the Irish, the Canadian, South African, Australian, French, Belgian (and so many more) troops stand straight and tall on parade, the Langemark graves are flat. The grave markers are dark, not white. The cemetery is enclosed by a low, unassuming wall. The site is under a lot more tree cover. There under sufferance. ‘You can have your cemeteries,’ the Belgians said, ‘but only if we can almost pretend they’re not there.’
Tyne Cot was a sombre place, but with a heart of gratefulness. I cried when I saw a double headstone for a grave containing the remains of four people. I was doing fine until someone else on the trip asked me why the grave was arranged that way; why the inscription said “believed to be” above each name. ‘The clue is in the designation,’ I told him. It was an artillery crew. Gunners. These four men were possibly manning a gun when it was shelled, and so they knew which four soldiers were on the crew. They perhaps found their name and regiment badges. But they couldn’t tell which man was which… I am fighting the tears again now thinking about it.
Langemark was sombre alright, but with an undercurrent of shame. It was gloomy and cold due to the thick canopy of trees. We did not linger. The grave markers were written in German (unsurprisingly). There was no memorial with a cross on the top. There were just four bronze, faceless men, remembering their comrades as best they could.
Why am I telling you all about this? You see, history is written by the victors. It’s the social version of evolution. The stories, legends, grudges of the past get passed down to the next generation and then the next. In another few years we will start to see the last survivors of WW2 finally passing away, as those from WW1 have already done. Their legacy, apart from the sadly unheeded plea for such a conflict to never happen again, is History, with a capital H. It’s what we are taught in schools, see on documentaries, get stung by in the pub quiz. It moulds our consciousness and we don’t even realise. We take these stories as fact. They refer to real events and people, but they are relayed by people with an emotional investment. The phrase “there are three sides to a story: my side, your side, and the truth” did not come from nothing.
I am in no way trying to belittle the actions of those in the Great War or any conflict since. I am not trying to say people lied about events or have deliberately distorted the past (though I am sure that has also happened). I am just trying to navigate storytelling.
Onto a slightly lighter version of the last seven hundred words: Draco Malfoy. He’s not the star of the Harry Potter series, though he is not the Big Bad either (and we cannot name who is!). There are a few of these memes around, but this is my favourite one:
It is natural, I suppose, to tell a story from the hero’s point of view. That’s one hell of a tale. It may even be full of sound and fury! We get that spark of an idea: save the princess, diffuse the bomb, stop the Apocalypse. There is nothing wrong with those stories. But how would they look if they were told by the losers instead of the victors? Draco’s version of Harry Potter is a little different, no?
What about Aladdin? I’m sure I’ve talked about this before. StarKid wrote and performed a musical called Twisted, which is a parody of Aladdin told from Jafar’s point of view. In the story, Aladdin is an arrogant, psychotic wastrel who is thirty-three and still tries to mack on the teenage princess. Jafar is an idealistic government official trying to end “the socio-economic inequality” of the kingdom, but is constantly foiled by the selfish and incompetent Sultan (and other Viziers). This in turn sprang from the Wicked series by Gregory Maguire. If you haven’t heard of those, it’s the Wizard of Oz from the POV of the Wicked Witch of the West.
How would the stories you tell be turned around if the vanquished were the narrators? Do villains see themselves as villainous? We are all in that chain of narrative somewhere after all. Arthur Dent is a monster to Agrajag. How would Lord of the Rings look if Sauron were the hero? There he is, just trying to rule his lands, when the races of Men et al decide to overthrow him. Even the trees get in on the action! I mean, Sauron has built a stable economy, there’s almost no unemployment, he’s got heavy industry going on… and then an invading army – including ghosts/the undead don’t forget! – storm the gates and some undergrown guerrilla fighters infiltrate the fortress.
Although this type of story clearly lends itself to parodies of existing work, I for one am keen to explore my options on this. I want a story where the hero… isn’t. Or where the “good things” the heroes do have bad consequences for Joe Public (I’m thinking collateral damage of a huge wizard duel). Or even that someone thinks they’re being the hero and starts this huge chain of events in Righteous Indignation, but then it turns out they were totally wrong and they have done some major damage for no reason. Or hey, a story that isn’t so A vs B. Shades of grey, people. Count them! But not beyond forty-nine…
All I’m saying is, don’t forget the Langemarks when you’re thundering through the Tyne Cots. If a narrative is to have depth, it needs to consider more angles than “well they’re doing it because they’re evil”, or “they just do the right thing!” There are more than forty four thousand people at Langemark, including 24000 in a mass grave. Some will never be identified, but they are all important. Germany was not wiped off the map, after all. Their survivors have their own stories to tell. Their own History is quietly grieving in the shadows under the oak trees.
Who will remain after your fantasy battles? And how will your hero treat the dead?