I spent three days last week visiting war cemeteries and museums in Ypres and the Somme. I was lucky enough to be part of a group which was being shown new exhibitions by curators and guides with a view to encouraging visitors, so we had excellent guides and I learnt a lot more about the overall effects of the First World War in these areas, not the least of which, of course, was the enormous number of casualties.
We must have stood and looked at graves numbering in their many thousands, let alone the
memorials to the missing, including the Menin Gate and Thiepval. I don't think anyone can be immune to the emotional impact of visiting these cemeteries - I certainly find it exhausting, but am always grateful to have had the opportunity to go there.
We visited Pheasant Wood Cemetery at Fromelles, the first new Commonwealth War Graves
Cemetery for 80 years, where the Australian in our party found herself in tears. She had no idea of the numbers of Australians buried around there. There is something about standing by graves, and seeing the landscape where the men fought and died, that brings home to you what history books can only obliquely convey. The men buried here were all killed on one day, mown down by machine guns. They lay in No Man's Land, and as Commonwealth forces were forbidden to risk their lives going out to bring them back for burial, it was German soldiers who went out at night to collect the bodies, and bury them in a mass grave, which has only recently been discovered.
These are deeds which should not pass away, names that must not wither
are the words carved on one gravestone there, in a personal message from the family.
This kind of sums up why I researched and wrote Southborough War Memorial. I also always try, itineraries allowing, to visit any of the Southborough men's graves that I can, and this time I was able to see those of Henry Moon, William Henry Godsmark, and Thomas Vinall at Lijssenthoek Cemetery outside Poperinghe. This cemetery was formed to bury men who were brought into the Hospital next to it, so all the men buried here actually died here, rather than being re-interred from smaller cemeteries, as is often the case. There's an excellent new exhibit here, showing the progress of casualties from the battlefield, through casualty clearing stations and on to field hospitals, and sometimes, back home.
I got home late on Saturday night, and spent Sunday catching up on food shopping, putting the washing in etc, and then back to work. But I forgot about Berlin, and the backlash I'd experienced then, until a few nights later, when I woke weeping from nightmares, and disturbed my husband with my sobs. I'd been dreaming of something wicked and man-made stalking through the landscape. Driving home from work that day, I'd heard reports on the radio of very young children being tortured and murdered in Syria. Too much awfulness on top of the weekend's catalogue of death and loss: letters from mothers searching for missing sons after the Somme battles; the Chinese labourers' graves, of those who had died of disease after clearing the battlefields of decaying corpses; the hotel in the Somme, where I felt the ghostly echo of all the Northumberland Fusiliers slaughtered even before they reached the Front Line and buried nearby; the sight of High Wood in the distance, where the piles of dead and ordinance have never been cleared, but just sealed off; the huge French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette, where, in one chamber, coffins of unknown soldiers are laid out next to a child's coffin full of ashes of French deportees, brought back from Auschwitz, and the dreadful history of Chemin des Dames, the French equivalent of the Somme in some ways, where only 10 trees were left at the end of the First World War in an area of 400 hectares. The list goes on...
I am an optimist generally - more Pickwick than Puddleglum - but my interest in history sometimes causes me to dwell too long on the dark side. I have then to reflect on the other side of humanity, and there are many examples. I needed something to help me back to sleep last night, and what came to mind, and to my aid, was the simple sentence, "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee" and the image which is, for me, one of the most realised manifestations of love made visible, as portrayed by Ford Maddox Brown in his painting of Christ Washing St Peter's feet. I will be visiting Gent in December, and I understand that the painting is on loan there from the National Gallery. I hope to have time to see it, and in this instance, to look upon the light.