The ghosts we summon from the battlefield: reflections and event recording for SHU SPG’s Haunts #3 event

To the uninitiated, the landscape is flat and unremarkable, punctured only by the bulk of the Lion’s Mound amid miles of grassland and the occasional thicket of trees or a charming barn conversion. To others it is the final stop on an eerie pilgrimage of devastation and loss.”

Rebecca L. Hearne (2020) ‘The Weight of the Past’

Rebecca was due to be one of our presenters at yesterday’s online Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group event, ‘Haunts #3: The Haunted Battlefield’. Sadly, she wasn’t able to be with us, but I read extracts from her paper at the start of our event, and these set us up nicely for our collective ruminations around how battlegrounds have haunted qualities.

Rebecca’s paper gave a vivid account of her experience of conducting an archaeological dig at the Waterloo battleground, in the vicinity of the Lion’s Mound, a monumental landform commissioned by King William I of the Netherlands to commemorate the dead of the 1815 battle there. I read the following passage, which reminded us of the materiality and mortality not just of battlegrounds per se, but of this mound as a particular place, and of this mound as a testimony to the disruption of particular lives:

“The Lion’s Mound is powerful, its impact on visitors visceral. Standing atop the monumental pedestal, it is difficult to visualise the thousands of tons of soil collected to form the mound beneath one’s feet. This soil, drawn from the battlefields, contains bone fragments, lost teeth with historical fillings, clay pipe bowls blackened from anxious chain-smoking, and tatters of cloth punctured by bayonet blades, sometimes decayed and sometimes stained with young men’s blood. Musket balls, unfired but flattened on one side, preserve the moment when a young man jammed his ramrod too hard down the barrel of his gun while loading it in panic, causing it to misfire, injuring or — most likely — killing him. Shreds of family photographs, letters, memorandum books, tokens and talismans imbued with meaning and significance and intended to ensure a safe passage home were instead swallowed by thousands of tonnes of blood-soaked soil. As one project participant mused, standing atop the monument on that searing July day, ‘You just feel that… that weight. All the weight of the past is here.’”

Rebecca’s fellow excavators were 21st century military veterans with PTSD, who found the act of digging and being at anothers’ battleground a powerful and helpful way of working through their own trauma.

Thinking back on the five presented papers that then followed, it has struck me that all of them – each in different ways – were concerned with the summoned nature of ghosts at battlefields. The presentations (which are all available to watch in the session recording below) each showed how, just as ‘place’ is ‘space’ infused with meaning projected onto it, so each battleground’s sense of haunting is at least in part (created or sustained) by present generations’ orientations towards these sites.

Thus, in the event’s keynote presentation, conflict archaeologist and post-conflict heritage specialist Gilly Carr from the University of Cambridge looked at how in the Channel Islands the material remains of the Atlantic Wall defences (Nazi bunker complexes) have been appropriated by successive generations of post-war islanders, sometimes playfully, sometimes as ‘heritage’, sometimes as emblems of islander spirit. And within that, the islanders openly share stories of encounters with the ghosts of these places. Gilly contrasted this with the awkwardness that arises within most academic circles when talk turns to ghosts. Gilly was keen to portray this local attachment to these bunkers and their ghosts as a potent mix of tangible and intangible heritage. Just as there has been growing attentiveness to the need to identify and preserve cultural practices and ideas in indigenous cultures, so can the logics of this be brought closer to home. The significance of these bunkers is – at least in part – because of the importance attached to them by the visiting, re-appropriation and story-telling projected upon them as part of the islanders’ local culture. Perhaps, by extension, these ghosts (or at least the practices enacted by the living in relation to them) should be protected as intangible heritage.

Later in the session, David Cotterrell (SHU – fine art), showed how his experiences as a war artist in Afghanistan in the early 2000s had been driven by a self-confrontation, when – as a pacifist – he was offered the chance to document a warzone. He felt the need to challenge himself, and to see this other (or alter-) reality for himself. His experiences showed him the complexities of ‘seeing’ war, that in 21st century warfare the view is often distant, totalising (as epitomised in the remote view of the drone pilot). This influenced David’s 2012 installation work, The Monsters of Id, which works across three different visual domains and degrees of proximity to other people (whether enemies, bystanders or otherwise others). The following video shows the three installation pieces comprising that work. As David explains in his contribution to Haunts #3, the presence of inhabitants in the artworks is directly influenced by the presence of spectators. Thus, no one looking results in no-one appearing in the artwork. The flip-side of this is that if spectators lingered in the gallery they would be visited by curious others – people visiting them from within the artwork. This uncanny device activated two important complexities. First, the notion that we summon that which we fear – we call it forth – and perhaps it only exists because we summon it. Secondly, the notion of various degrees of distance of spectatorship, and in particular the detachment that military views of desert-like landscapes engender, with targets as anonymous – ghost like – others glimpsed only vaguely or in aggregate.

Another presenter, Andrew Robinson (SHU – photography) looked at the history of battlefield photography as pioneered at Gettysburg during the American Civil War. With a near-forensic close attention to detail, Andrew showed how iconic photographs showing the aftermath of that battle were somewhat composed, through rearrangement of the placing of corpses. Andrew showed how a style of war photography had been forged there – by commercial photographers who were taking pictures for sale to the general public, and seemingly meeting a ‘need’ (prurient or otherwise) for the viewer to feel that they had (virtually) been there / seen the reality of conflict. Andrew then showed how as the battlefield morphed in successive generations into a totem of heritage and national identity, the site itself having become a visually choreographed object.

David Clarke (SHU – Journalism) presented an equally thorough investigation of the origins of the ‘Angels of Mons’ legend, showing how what came to be a widespread belief in spectral intercession in an early First World War battle had been triggered by fiction that then slid into assumed fact, embedding itself in enduring folk memory. The assumption of fact was a product of its time and context: a heady mix of patriotism, pre-existing national myths and spiritualism. Such myths take hold where there is a widespread desire for such things to be true. Once again, we summon the ghosts.

Rob Hindle (Sheffield based poet), shared this concern with the power of myth, and blended in his concern with the alter-reality of war and also his family history or ancestors caught up in the carnage of the Western Front. Rob read from his published collection The Grail Roads (Longbarrow Press, 2018), an evocative mix of his poetry and extracts from his interpretative essay “Iron Harvest: An archaeology of sources”. The following quote – describing Rob’s search with his father for the location at which his great-grandfather fell in 1917 – neatly returns us to the theme of ‘summoning’ (Rob is searching for a ghost) and adds a sense of the chilling ambivalence of place:

“His body wasn’t found. The buzzing pylon and surrounding scrub don’t feel like markers: we’ve just run out of track. We stand freezing for a few seconds, my dad and me; then go back to the car.

The villages are ancient and they aren’t; Aerial photographs from 1981 show nothing but dark weals; yet here are hedgerows, huge trees, honey-stoned cottages and walls. Graves cluster along the lanes, the same stone cut into trim slabs and lined up, almost touching. Everything is small and close: 100 graves in a garden plot; six villages in a ten-minute drive. A dozen fields run down to the Ancre. I look at the maps from 1914, 1916, 1971. The villages disappeared but the red lines were more or less the same. The men came up that road, year after year, and were killed. When it was finished people came back, rebuilt their houses, planted trees, ploughed the land again.” (p.137)

Image Source: Belgique_Butte_du_Lion_dit_de_Waterloo_cropped.jpg (2646×1577) (