On Thursday, 6 April 2017, I shall be presenting a paper in Arras, at the Université d’Artois, as part of an Edward Thomas Centenary Conference. I shall be speaking on Gurney and the influence of Thomas’s poetry on his work and ideas. The date of the conference is a significant one: not only does it occur just a couple of days before the centenary of Thomas’s death at Arras; the 6th April marks the centenary of the advance on Bihécourt from Vermand, 40 miles south of Arras, in which Gurney was involved and was wounded. That day in 1917, Good Friday, he was shot in the arm, clean ‘through-and-through’, and — if his later writing is to be believed — he feared not for his life, but for his piano playing, raining curses upon Fritz for the blighting of English music in his being wounded.
The advance on Bihécourt is likely the event depicted by Gurney in his justly famous poem ‘The Silent One’. The bombardment prior to their advance should have cut through the wires so that they could advance unhindered on the village, but the wires were unbroken. A ‘noble fool, faithful to his stripes’ stepped over ‘and ended.’
‘Do you think you might crawl through, there; there’s a hole;’ In the afraid
Darkness, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied —
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen.
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes’
Glancing briefly at the map, my train journey will take me through and close to so many places that Gurney knew. It is sad that I won’t have time and opportunity to venture further afield than Arras to take in some of those places I am writing about at present. Even so: it will be poignant indeed to be speaking of Gurney on the exact centenary of his wounding, and on Thomas, just a few days shy of the centenary of his loss, and as close as can be to the place of that loss and where he now lies.
In Memoriam (Easter 1915)
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
Edward Thomas, 6 April 1915