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Conference Papers
Publications : Chapters in Books

Paul Gough
'“Turf Wars”: grass, greenery and the spatiality of commemoration. Recurring debates and disputes in the uses of horticultural iconography by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in northern Europe.'

Chapter 5 from 'Heimat & Belonging: At Home in the Future', editors John Rodwell and Peter Scott, LIT Verlag, in press

Introduction – discourse and debates

Where once geographers could argue that the ideological issues surrounding the quintessential character of English and Empire military cemeteries had drawn little comment, there is now a considerable literature exploring the space and place of remembrance. Increasing attention has been paid during the past decade to the value of “situation” in the discourse of death, grieving and commemoration. In this respect, “situation” should be understood to be a focus on “place”, “space” and the geopolitical (Gillis 1994). The emerging discipline of cultural geography in the late 1990s created the tools necessary to elaborate “space” in the abstract, to regard “place” as a site where an individual might negotiate definitively social relations, and give voice, as Sara Blair argued, to “the effects of dislocation, disembodiment, and localization that constitute contemporary social disorder.”1 In our post-historical era, further argues Blair, temporality has largely been superseded by spatiality, what has been termed the affective and social experience of space. Almost a century after Freud’s treatise Mourning and Melancholia (1917), our understanding of how memory and mourning function continues to be challenged, revised, and refined. Issues of place have become important to this debate. Once a marginal topic for academic investigation, there is now a body of scholarly work exploring the complex interrelationship between memory, mourning and what might be termed “death-scapes”. Indeed, this fascination with places of death and dying has given rise to myriad academic explorations spawning academic disciplines such as dark- or thana-tourism, which is an extreme form of grief-incited travel to distant prisons, castles, and abandoned battlefields where anthropological enquiry can be conducted. Suspicions of a release of “recreational grief” aroused after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 have also provided sociologists with considerable material for scholarly attention (Walter 1999).

However, this chapter will focus on the many ways in which horticulture, architecture and planning have been mobilized (to borrow the military term) to transform traumatized battle landscapes into permanent sites of memory. Mosse
(1990), Morris (1997) and McKay (2001) and others have examined the aftermath of war and observed the creation of what some have also described as “memory-scapes”, a portmanteau term that fuses an appreciation of once- violated landscapes with personal and discursive memories (Basu 2007).

In this chapter I want to focus not only on the torn and traumatized terrain of war, but on its repair, on the intensive attempts to smoothen the surfaces of war and to dress them in ways appropriate to civic and personal commemoration, to create “homely” and familiar plots of memory forever land-locked in the proverbial foreign field. I will do so by examining the project to create garden cemeteries on tracts of former battlefields after the Great War, 1914-1919. It is an impressive story. Yet, what would appear to be a straightforward narrative of reparation, recovery and rejuvenation is tainted by disharmony and argument. After the war, there was much disagreement about the “proper” form of remembrance; there was an intense dispute about the repatriation of bodies; and an extended (at times quite bitter) public argument about the best way to mark the sites of burial. What is additionally surprising is that these disagreements can seem as alive and vivid today as they did ninety years ago. Conducted by families, remembrance groups, ex-servicemen, politicians, and others, these disputes tell us much about the way we remember our dead, how we create protocols of commemoration and, significantly, how we play out discussions about national identity through horticultural proxies such as trees, shrubs, and most importantly, turfed lawn.

1 Blair, 544..