“Every intelligent person in the world knew that disaster was impending but knew no way to avoid it.” H.G.Wells
Over the past 10 years, I have traveled with our History department on their Year 10 field trip to Ypres. I can’t really explain quite how valuable the trip is for those concerned, offering as it does a unique mix of activity for the pupils studying the First World War.
The remarkable museum “In Flanders Fields” is situated in the Cloth Hall at the centre of Ypres, which looks in better shape now than it did after the artillery had finished with it in 1914. And as you walk into the museum, H.G.Wells stark commentary reminds us that now as then, war is a bloody business that no-one can control. An hour or so spent in the museum allows the visitor to explore the life and times of one character during and after the war period, mine was an Albert Wheeler, who fought and survived the war, and whose wish to be laid to rest after his death (1982) with his comrades in Flanders was permitted through the scattering of his ashes amongst his comrades, south east of Ypres in the village of Zillebeke.
I make no bones about the success of the trip; you only have to see the purposeful nature of the cemetery survey to see how moved the pupils are. “Choose two epitaphs you find moving” is the task, and within minutes you can see the boys and girls are drawn into the individual stories of grief and pride that such words elicit. At Tyne Cot, the row on row of white headstones, most inscribed simply “A soldier of the Great War” and then much lower down under a simply cross “Known unto God” can’t help but move the visitor. Near the central memorial cross, built over a concrete Pill Box, there are several individual graves of both British and German soldiers, buried it seems where they fell, helping the visitor remember that both sides lost their finest men in the conflict.
“Tyne Cot Cemetery is the resting place of 11,954 soldiers of the Commonwealth Forces. This is the largest number of burials contained in any Commonwealth cemetery of either the First or Second World War. It is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. The dates of death of the soldiers buried at Tyne Cot cemetery cover a period of four years, from October 1914 to September 1918 inclusive.” In addition, on the walls at the rear of the cemetery, some 33,783 names of the UK forces lost after 15 August 1917 are listed, together with 1,176 New Zealanders lost in battles fought nearby throughout the war.
The King’s Speech has recently won Oscars and Baftas and much acclaim for the courage shown by King George V1 as he struggled to master a devastating stammer. His father, George V had to show extraordinary courage throughout his reign, not just because of the devastating effect the Great War had upon so many towns and villages in his kingdom. After the War, King George toured the various cemeteries in Flanders and wrote this on 11 May 1922 on visiting Tyne Cot “We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
Langemark German Military cemetery is much newer than Tyne Cot, very much a moving project throughout the last century to bring together disparate groups of German graves into one major memorial. Whilst it began as a cemetery during 1915, it grew after both wars and the oaks planted in 1930 now provide a lofty cover to what is a remarkably different memorial to the fallen, far less majestic and yet full of the same pathos; at both sites, one can’t help but mourn.
Sanctuary Wood ought to be as gloomy, being former British trenches overrun on a number of occasions by the German army, and a place under which no doubt many human remains still could be found. Somehow though it’s not, despite the carcasses of shattered trees that still adorn the landscape, the sheer exuberance of young visitors running through the trenches, jumping the gaps and running underground in the linking tunnels helps bring light and life to what must have been a god-forsaken place. Between Langemark and Sanctuary wood we pass Hellfire Corner, arguably the most dangerous place on the front, where troops pass through at the run, horses at the gallop and lorries as flat out as mud and technology would allow.
At 8pm, we stand under the Menin Gate, the major memorial for those lost without grave before 15 August 1917 in the UK forces. There’s always a huge crowd, and some planned short ceremony from school, forces unit or other brigade laying wreaths in between the Bugle blasts of the Belgian Fire brigade who host the daily event. This year for some reason, the lights were out, making it an even more poignant memory of the ultimate sacrifice made by those we stand to remember. There’s not really a lot to see or hear, crowds being what they are, but when the bugles blow and the crowd hushes, it’s clear we have all that same thought, a sense of loss but firm resolve that we will abide by Laurence Binyon’s direction in his poem For the Fallen.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”