Thursday, March 26, 2015

Wyeth's war sonnets illustrated:~~~ 1. "Oisemont: Place de la Mairie"

The "blank Mairie" and "the gaunt old belfry".

From time to time, as I come across appropriate period photographs, I will post descriptive passages from Wyeth’s war sonnets together with photographs that illustrate the same scenes. First up, the “Place de la Mairie” in Oisemont.

OISEMONT: Place de la Mairie
The shadows slant along the dusty square
that tilts haphazard past the blank Mairie.
Grey timid little houses hand in hand
step gingerly downhill. A yellow wall,
branded Hotel du Soleil d’Or--- down there
the zinc and tinware sign Quincaillerie.
Up from the rest camp swings a Highland band
and people swarm and clutter . . . children call.
The pipers drone a shrill nostalgic air
below my window in the Mercerie,
kilts flapping while the drumsticks thump and fly.
The gaunt old belfry tolls a reprimand,
and as the drums stop and the bagpipes squall
a long slow dingy funeral crawls by.

It is the evening of May 26th,1918. Lieutenant Wyeth and his fellow officers have been on board a series of troop trains since mid-afternoon of the previous day, travelling from Brest on the coast to Paris to Beauvais, arriving in Oisemont in the early evening, after nearly 30 hours of travel. 

Wyeth has been given a room in the Mercerie and is able to look down on the city square from his window, with still enough light remaining to see a Scottish band marching through the square, followed by a funeral procession. 

 This same Scottish band will be observed several days later, on June 2, by the men of the 131st Infantry, 33rd Division, as they pass through Oisemont on their way to the nearby village of Huppy, and it will be seen yet again, on the evening of June 6th, in Huppy itself, by a field clerk on the 33rd Division Headquarters staff, who notes in his diary that some of the kilted pipers have tattooed knees. 

The two landmarks mentioned in the sonnet, the “blank Marie” and the “gaunt old belfry” of the church, can be seen in the postcard above. The subsequent postcards show the same scene from several different angles. All the postcards date from shortly before the war.

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