Every historical battlefield emanates a “potential”, not something immediately obvious but presence enough to make you draw breath, look around and try and identify some common feature to use in an attempt to compare what can be a relatively banal scene now in the present day to what was likely a scene of abject horror.
I remember passing through the Somme, I wouldn’t have noticed, but for the Moroccan truck driver who we’d hitched a lift with pointing it out to me as we passed in the early hours en route to Paris. I can’t remember that much about it, it was over 20 years ago, I was deadbeat and my hitching partner and best friend was asleep in the back of the truck cabin. We were trying to hitch to Paris for charity and had spent the previous 24 hours in a variety of vehicles. I remember a scarily-mad, scouse, Greenpeace supporter demanding ever more depraved jokes on the threat of being turfed out on the hard shoulder of the M6 motorway, and then a blur of even more flaky rides, service stations, slip roads, a ferry, random meetings with friends, lot’s of waiting around, then France and seemingly endless car parks and roundabouts.
The Somme passed by in a blur of fields in the semi- darkness. I can still remember it though; the potential was there even if I didn’t have time to process it all at the time. The driver unfortunately jack- knifed the truck a few hours later. Everybody was OK, but a change of vehicles was quickly required to get to Paris.
No surprises then that we failed heroically. Whilst making it all the way there and eventually back, we were more than several days behind the winners, who had blagged their way aboard a return flight from Liverpool direct to Paris. I don’t suppose they got to experience sleeping under a park bench next to the Eiffel tower, sharing a bottle of wine with a deranged Belgian, negotiating the maze of ring roads around Paris, or being barred by SNCF after desperately not getting a lift. Still you have to hope they lost their baggage en route or got strip-searched or something, anything really.
The next time it really struck me was at Ouistreham about 10 miles from Caen in Normandy: Sword beach where the British 3rd Infantry Division landed on D- Day. Standing on the shingle in the early evening with a sea fog descending over the incoming tide, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the horror of the landings, but there is an eerie feeling that creeps up, makes you stop, look out to sea and bury your toes into the sand and shingle and shiver. I would like to photograph the Normandy beaches: there is something dreadful but beautiful there, I’m just not sure how to do it any justice.
I can’t lie, I’ve always been curious about the Vietnam war and I wanted to know more. To be honest it was a major driver in going there so I’d be hypocritical to say I wasn’t keen to see the Citadel at Hue. I’m glad we did, but I don’t want to see it again.
It will, eventually, be restored to its former Imperial glory, which is good for modern Vietnam, but by doing so it’s going to lose something: something not especially pleasant, but something important, something tangible, something I couldn’t capture in pictures.
That night we decided not to visit Khe Sanh or any of the other major battlefields around the DMZ and to move south to Hoi An.