About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Saturday, 25 October 2014

A former soldier visits Plugstreet in October 1919

On Wednesday 15 October 1919 the Daily Express carried the following article:

Peace Visit to Plugstreet
Famous Trench Silent and Deserted
Carpenter’s Shop

“I would not go to that place again, or to any other place where I have seen battle, except by force,” writes Mr. W. G. Shepherd, in a message to the Exchange Telegraph Company, concerning a recent visit to Ploegsteert – the “Plugstreet” he knew in 1915.

“Thousands, yes, perhaps 200,000 British lads at one time claimed “Plugstreet” as their wartime home. Every dugout was filled with a romping spirit when things were going even half well.

“At the intersections of the many board walks there were street signs reminiscent of old London. They were made by squads of carpenters and painters who had come out here, not, indeed, to make joking street signs, but to make the neat regulation crosses for British graves. They had plenty of work to do in these days in their rough little shop in the forest.

“Today I was back at ‘Plugstreet.’ I jumped down from the car bravely enough to go into the grove. I found the very trench through which I had passed out, with bent back, to the front-line trenches. It was a perfect tangle of verdure. Small raspberry bushes were growing along its edges. It was now only a ditch, but then it was a shelter for precious life. Hundreds of thousands of good men had need to die to make it safe for a man to stand there as I did.

“I worked my way along the ditch edge over the fields. Here was the first line – a zigzagging, plant-tangled furrow. In this great main trench I had seen hundreds of British soldiers living, playing cards on benches, writing letters, shaving, washing, gossiping, eating, sleeping and cooking, but always watching, always waiting, either for the enemy to come to them or for orders to go to the enemy.

“Now it was deathly silent. Not another human being was in sight. It was all too much for me – too lonely, too sad, and hopeless. I hurried back to the road where the car was standing.

“Some distance away I found the cemetery. How they must have worked since 1915, those carpenters and painters in that little shop under the trees!

“For young men who were in the war of all the lonely places on earth the loneliest and the awfullest, the place of all places on earth not to go, is a battlefield where they have been in war.”

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