It’s nearly over, thinks Augustin Trébuchon. He doesn’t know the men he’s trusted for four extraordinary years are barely pen-poised. He’s bait in one last battle
Creating the Centena.
In 2016 I received an Arts Council grant to write a body of poetry in response to Paris’ cinematic heritage. During my residency I went on many of the excellent walking tours offered by Paris Walks. It was on one of these I first came across Augustin Trébuchon. Born in 1878, Trébuchon was a shepherd and accordionist. An orphan in charge of a number of young siblings, he was not expected to sign up when the war began, but he did and, miraculously, survived Marne, Verdun, Artois and the Somme. On 11 November 1918, he was carrying a message which said “Rassemblement á 11h30 pour le ravitaillement.” (Muster at 11.30 for food.) It was freezing cold, foggy. He was shot dead between 10.40 and 10.45, just 15 minutes before his comrade Octave Delaluque sounded the bugle notes signifying the end of the war. The date on his gravestone, however, is 10 November 1918. The benign version is that no deaths were recorded as having taken place on Armistice Day as otherwise widows wouldn’t get their pensions. Others say it was to hide the fact that men were being killed right up until the last minute. I couldn’t forget this story, this ordinary man and his extraordinary death.
Various projects over the past five years have helped provide a strong research background to my centena. I was involved in choosing films with First World War links for the King’s Lynn Community Cinema Club. We screened a wide variety from Oh, What a Lovely War! Sunset Song, Testament of Youth, to Ballet Boyz Young Men, Frantz and Joyeux Noel. Each film helped me see hidden aspects of war, from the repressed homosexuality in Young Men to the awkward hatred between the French and Germans in Frantz and the controversial anti-war sentiment in Oh! What a Lovely War.
In 2017 I took part in a Poetry School project. I was one of 10 poets commissioned to write a five-minute piece in response to a section of the 1916 documentary film Battle of the Somme. The resulting multi-voiced poem was performed at The Cinema Museum followed by a screening of the film. A considerable amount of research went into this poem, including several visits to the IWM to explore the First World War Galleries, in particular the visual images. I was also interested in the jargon the soldiers developed. Geoff Dyer’s excellent The Missing of the Somme was invaluable. I was conscious and, initially, self-conscious, that we had the legacy of the First World War poets haunting us, but also accepted that our knowledge and ideas could freshen up this topic with the hindsight of the 21st century and make it relevant to a new generation. I’ve tried to make my centena relevant and poignant but also un-sentimental. Somehow I feel that Trébuchon would have been a pragmatist. He stares out from his photos, moustached, fair, a small smile playing on his lips. I hope he likes my conjuring of his final moments.
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