I don’t know who Walter Elliot was, nor how old he was (maybe nobody did) when he died in a foreign field. This was the first name I noticed, perhaps because he came from West Yorkshire; others had no names, yet others no graves.
At the rising of the sun and in its going down, we shall remember them
I hope that someone here in West Yorkshire remembers him.
“How about we spend one of our sessions in Belgium exploring the World War 1 sites” was an innocent enough suggestion a couple of years ago. And it gained traction, and the plans slowly formed, and a decision was made that he Spring 2016 meeting of The Brookfield Group would be based in Ypres, Belgium.
Rail tickets were booked, minibus hired, accommodation sourced, schedule suggested and eventually on 13th April I set off for Winchester. By the time we got to Dover for an early afternoon ferry on Thursday 14th there were 11 of us; by the time we got back to Calais on 18th there were still 11 of us, but we were changed men.
I have posted before about my responses to visiting Auschwitz and reading that post in conjunction with this one could make sense.
I am not aware of any family connections to WW1 and much less interested in history generally than some of my colleagues in Brookfield, and I agreed to go on the basis that the trip would at least enable me to explore my ‘attitude’ in the light of hard experience of visiting the sites of some of the most prolonged and bloody battles. I am so pleased that I went and was abe to share the experience with a bunch of men who have come to know each other well and are able to support each other through thick and thin. Many of us needed that support.
This is not a travelogue, but perhaps listing some of the places we visited would help, so here goes (in no particular order) – The Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, the Commonwealth cemeteries at Tyne Cot, Poperinge, Croonaert, Dantzig Alley and others, The Menin Gate, two memorials to the Welsh contingent, Talbot House, Langermark German Cemetery, the Paschendale Museum, reconstructed trenches at Bayernwald. We saw and revered the resting places of hundreds of thousands of poor young men of so many nationalities; we wept; we laughed; we wondered about the existence of a ‘just war’; we debated (somewhat pointlessly, for who really knows how they will respond in extremis) how we might individually respond if the call came to fight for our country; we took photographs; we bought souvenirs; we left only footprints.
But I left more than footprints, part of MY heart now lies in those foreign fields. The part of my heart that cannot help but pour out in sympathy for those poor young men, those sons of mothers and prides of fathers, who had their lives so rudely torn from them in a conflict that so few of them probably understood. I find myself unable to agree with the mantra so often seen “They gave their lives…” NO THEY DID NOT! The lucky ones had their lives extinguished by a well-placed bullet or massive explosion – over in a flash; the unlucky ones were wounded with inadequate medical support whose job anyway was to get them fit enough to go back and be shot at once more, the even more unlucky spent hours/days in the cold wet trenches with their feet rotting perhaps wondering how much longer this war that would be over before Xmas was going to last before going home with what we now label PTSD but in those days was not recognised and go getting no support as they were unable or unwilling to talk about their horrific experiences; worst of all were those 306 men who were summarily court-martialled and shot at dawn for desertion or cowardice.
I can hardly call them ‘highlights’, perhaps a few more memorable moments:
The exit from The Flanders Field Museum in Ypres – there hangs a series of banners listing the major conflicts that have happened since the end of the war to end all wars. Tragic.
The gardens at Talbot House in Poperinge. A haven for those able to spend time away from the lines – humanity in amongst inhuman carnage. Talbot House was behind the lines and Poperinge was never taken by the Germans. It was the origin of the humanitarian movement TocH, who still work supporting and bringing together disparate parts of society.
Tyne Cot – the largest Commonwealth War Grave containing nearly 12,000 marked graves, over 8000 of which contain unidentified remains as well as names of over 34,000 British and New Zealand soldiers whose remains are still missing in the Ypres Salient.
Finally, Langermark, one of the few German cemeteries. The Germans repatriated most of their fallen. This moving sculpture watches over both named and unidentified remains of tens of thousands of German fallen.
At times it seemed that the only way I could deal with the assault on my senses was to dissociate from what I was witnessing, yet to dissociate would weaken the impact. We now have a generation of politicians who like me have never faced the reality of war, dissociation enables them to send more young men to die in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and all of the many conflicts around the world. Is the ‘war’ against ISIS any more just than WW1? What view would a utilitarian take of war? Is the participative democracy that we believe in and send people to defend and impose really much better than a benevolent dictatorship? Would fewer people die and/or live at least acceptable lives has Saddam, Assad, ISIS etc been allowed to do what they were doing for longer? Conflict is generally ended by enemies sitting down talking to each other, should we be more prepared to spend longer talking before getting the guns out? Unanswerable questions, but questions we should surely explore openly and often, let’s not allow a ‘war is the answer’ mindset to proliferate.
How do I feel now? A host of words come to mind, but I have yet to find a label for a complex set of emotions that includes anger (unwanted because anger only fuels disputes), sadness and disappointment that the lessons have yet to be learned and so many around the world still think that the way to resolve their differences with others is to send more young men to their graves, grief for those who suffered (some briefly and some for many years after the conflict was over), helplessness to prevent it happening again, pleased that I went on the trip, disconcerted that the prickliness that I often manage to control leaked out during those times when my internal editor was tired out.
If you get the chance to go on such a trip please take it – you are likely to learn about yourself as well as history.
I finally managed to capture these thoughts a couple of weeks after our trip:
I saw graves and names beyond count
Graves with no name and names with no grave
I heard the gentle hum of the traffic, the whispering of the wind in the trees, the gentle twittering of the birds
I tried to hear the grim sounds of battle, the cries of agony, the last whispers of millions of lives being extinguished
I felt it all and I felt nothing
The despair, the passion, the pain
The hundred years of separation and the lifetime of privilege
I cried and I cry now that lessons have to be learned anew by each generation
Young lives are too important to waste in pursuit of some ego or ideology
No more, no more
If only, if only…