I spent the Easter holidays in Italy. However, that wasn’t the full extent of my holiday. For various practical reasons, including personal preference, I drove to our destination (the rest of the family flew). On my way back, I was able to spend some extra time sight-seeing.
One of the things I wanted to do was to see some of the First World War cemeteries. I didn’t know why — it was just something I had never done. I am glad I did, although it was much more harrowing than I expected.
Prior to the First World War, the bodies of soldiers who fell in battle tended to be buried, cremated, or left in situ. The cemeteries created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (founded in 1917) provide a clean break with this tradition. The Commission’s principles have been emulated by other nations and traditions, but few memorials are as moving as those on the Western Front. The simplicity of those principles is immensely respectful of the dead.
- Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial
- Headstones and memorials should be permanent
- Headstones should be uniform
- There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed
Wherever you are in the UK, you are never far from a memorial to local soldiers, sailors or airmen lost in war during the last century. Even the school I attended had a plaque immortalising the old boys who had given their lives in 1914-1918 or 1939-1945. (I saw similar memorials in many Italian towns and villages as well.) Despite these constant reminders, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of the memorials in West Flanders.
Despite the generally flat landscape of Jacques Brel’s plat pays, there is a curved low ridge around Ieper (Ypres), which has been the site of conflict on a number of occasions (even before WWI). Between 1914 and 1918, a number of battles over this salient accounted for the lives of about 450,000 young men. (All the information provided in West Flanders suggested nearly 250,000 soldiers of the France and the British Empire, together with just over 200,000 German soldiers.) These numbers are almost unimaginable, but awful when you can actually see the landscape over which they fought.
The only way I could start to comprehend the scale of this sacrifice was to personalise it. In Ieper, I found five graves belonging to soldiers killed on the same date as my visit, 21 April, but in 1918.
- 139636 Lance Cpl. E.J. Jones (Royal Engineers)
- 18934 Lance Cpl. A.R. Ockelford (Royal Engineers)
- 143532 2nd Corporal R. Wilson (Royal Engineers)
- 177166 Sapper Oliver Smith (Royal Engineers)
- 42544 Private C.G Hawkes (Essex Regiment)
May they rest in peace.
At the largest cemetery of all, Tyne Cot, the dead of Passchendaele 1917 are commemorated. Here there are nearly 12,000 men buried, and a further 35,000 whose graves are unknown remembered on a massive memorial wall. Another 55,000 casualties whose graves are unknown are commemorated on the walls of the Menin Gate in Ieper.
The emotional impact of these names, and the landscape over which the men bearing them fought and lost their lives, was heightened by the knowledge that so many of them were born in the 1890s and slain in their 20s. My own children were born in the 1990s. Little facts like this start to put the large numbers into perspective.