In the approach to Remembrance Sunday, I asked reader and contributor David Evans if he would like to write a piece on his experience of the war cemeteries he visits in northern Europe. David kindly obliged.
David has penned a remarkable piece, and I’m sure readers will join with me in thanking him for another great piece of work. One of the things that makes this blog so nice to curate is the willingness of you readers to give generously of time and effort to make such wonderful contributions.
This is the British Military Cemetery at Wijtschate, south of Ypres. Unlike the major cemeteries at Ypres and Passendale which understandably attract many thousands of visitors, this quiet part of the Belgian countryside remains a backwater.
Like all of the military cemeteries in this part of Belgium there are no weeds to be seen in the grounds, the lawns are immaculate, red roses bloom, and not one single pebble in the gravel footpaths is disturbed. Sometimes little wooden crosses with their poppies can be seen by graves; sometimes wreaths and bunches of fresh flowers have been placed by headstone there.
To walk around this cemetery you notice just how young the soldiers were when they were cut down. You suddenly realise that some headstones have no name, just ‘Known unto God’ and a cold, impersonal date. You realise that the cemeteries are very close to where the soldiers were killed in action. You look around, dumbstruck by this realisation. Emotion takes hold and you have to take deep breaths.
Just a few miles to the east, at Zandvoort, there is another ‘backwater’ military cemetery. Again you realise the horrible tragedy of the place, especially when you read that the graves and cemetery had to be moved, such was the fluidity of the advance and retreats.
The War Memorial in Walsall Wood, with its hundred or so names of victims of the Great War, hides the horror of the battles in which the men fought. An early tragic communications error near Ypres, in 1914, the bloody and awful Battle at Neuve Chappelle and Vermelles in 1915 where thousands of troops were ‘lost’ in horrific gas attacks that went wrong, walking into lethal withering enemy machine-gun fire, of ineffectual and insufficient artillery bombardment, the huge diabolic Battle of the Somme in 1916, and in the major German attacks of early 1918 along the same battle fields.
Ypres is often a cold, bleak town. The surrounding flat plains offer no shelter from the driving winter wind, the lashing rain, or the sub-zero cold. Fields flood, ditches are full, soil is clogged into liquid mud or clods of earth. The town itself was almost entirely obliterated by enemy shellfire. The Menin Gate, shown above, has thousands upon thousands of names of soldiers for whom ‘the fortune of war was not granted’. Obliterated during the bloody action in the mud, filthy water, stench and scurrying rats of the front lines.
Nowadays visitors can enter the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in the Cloth Hall in the town square. They will see exhibits of every kind. Somewhere in the archives there is the booklet of Arthur Burton’s exploits. The coaches of visiting English students park around the back of the Town Hall, by the cathedral, and near to the English military church. Sometimes the town hall carillon plays English tunes. But there is over-riding respect among all the visiting schoolchildren. These children will visit the huge craters, see some reconstructed trenches, may find the graves of distant relatives in a military cemetery.
They will hear no birdsong at any battlefield.
Every evening the traffic through the Menin Gate comes to a standstill and a bugler plays the Last Post, a tradition that dates back before the last war, and continued during the occupation. The bugle-call is a respect to all of the victims, whatever their nationality.
And at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month thoughts come to one’s mind, a shiver goes down one’s spine, and a tear or two comes to the eyes.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.The Soldier IF I should die, think only this of me; That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven. Rupert Brooke