Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Remebering the Great War * The Sampler of Marleen Meersserman

I am grateful to Marleen for showing me and telling me about her sampler commemorating World War I which started 100 years ago this year. Marleen lives on the battlefront of the Great War and thinks it important that the memory of this war is passed on. The idea for the sampler came to her in 2009. She says: I couldn’t find one single pattern that matched the theme. So I started off with photographs that my husband and I turned into sketches. By using an overhead projector and an erasable marker, we traced the sketches onto 36 count linen. Later on, a pointy needle proved useful to embroider the curved lines. I only used two colours: dark green and vibrant red. The difference in shades is the result of the variety in stitches. The many horrors with which the soldiers were confronted are listed (sometimes in four languages) and depicted in the right border. The word GAS is only three letters - yet this is a weapon by which thousands of people were killed or crippled. So I made the word longer by adding more s’s, and then I pondered for a while about how I should portray the gas: With clouds? Fluorescent green? Covered eyes? … I opted for a skull. The eye sockets hold the letters G, A and S. In the lower center, I embroidered the Stone of Remembrance. On its right, trenches, with our devastated landscape above. Between the burnt-up trees, symbolically, the Cross of Sacrifice. Our region is strewn with war cemeteries that are administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This is depicted in the left bottom. Above, poppies with stalks of barbed wire make up the left border. Soldiers and their families on both sides shared a common fate. Hence the sculpture “Mourning Parents” by Käthe Kollwitz. They mourn for their son on the German war cemetery of Vladslo, near Diksmuide. Above, the ruins of the Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) of Ypres, symbol of a destroyed region. On its right, the world-famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by John MacCrae, in which the symbolic use of poppies has its roots. Men are literally drowning in the mud, in the blood, in distress and misery. They scream for help, for rest, for peace … Hence the hand in the upper right. I think of my work as a condemnation of the horrors of war and I hope that everyone who tries to take it in, will realise how precious peace is..
Marleen's heartfelt work made me look again at two young men I knew briefly who served and survived the Great War. Here you can see my Great-uncle John and my dear Grandad, his brother. My Grandad was gassed and was carried on the back of German soldier to within crawling distance of a first-aid tent. Had it not been for this kind German, I would not be here today to tell you the story. After the war both my Grandad and Great-uncle had a predilection for meticulously polished shoes - I used to love helping brush their shoes - even though they were very strict about getting it just right! They also both needed a garden shed where they spent much of their time smoking and in quiet contemplation. Again I was allowed to be with them on condition I was quiet. My reward was being taught to sing Mademoiselle from Armentières (probably not all the verses) and how to roll their cigarettes in some strange mechanical gizmo - my Grandma would have been horrified had she known! When I was 13 my French exchange for 3 weeks was with a family in Bois Bernard in the Pas de Calais, not far from Armentières, I was taken to the Menin Gate at Ypres, the staggering memorial at Vimy Ridge and through the subterranean trenches of the war. To see the numbers of dead, the little ground lost and gained for such a toll brought me to tears, even then. Have any of you been to see the stage production of War Horse? If you have then you will know why Marleen chose also to depict a horse on her sampler - it represents the many animals that died as well.


  1. Could you please pass onto Marleen that her sampler is beautiful and very moving.

  2. The Great War is a part of my family also. My great-uncle Harry was a simple farm boy here in the US. He was sent to Europe, but died in the flu epidemic shortly after his arrival, as so many did. Perhaps he was lucky to have been spared the horrors of the war. His picture in his Army uniform always hung in my grandmother's living room, and now it hangs in my library. Always a reminder that all wars and all deaths are personal.

    One of the poems that we had to memorize in school was Flanders Field. Thank you for sharing this wonderful sampler that was truly made from the heart.

  3. Thank you for your moving memories and kindest words - I'll make sure Marleen has them.

  4. What a wonderful post. Very moving. I've not felt tears prickle behind my eyes when reading a Needleprint post before. I loved reading the detail of what had been included and why by Marleen. I hope she will take this as a compliment, as it is meant that way, but it has a look of a Jan Houtman sampler about it, but more modern.