Monday, 3 March 2014

Laid Bare

I remember, on New Year's Day, saying to the In-Charge: 'I wonder if anyone, a hundred years ago, knew what kind of year they were welcoming in?'
For most people, it was probably a New Year like any other - Auld Lang Syne, the coal and the bread on the doorstep, a few jars too many...
When I said it, both of us sort of  - paused - hindsight being what it is. The In-Charge numbers war heroes amongst his ancestors, a father and son who died together at Passchendaele in 1917, so his genetic memory (as it were) of the First World War runs very deep.

Having studied various aspects of that war at college, and, more recently and far more poignantly, having visited Ypres, Tyne Cot and many of the other Passchendaele war cemeteries to mark the 90th anniversary of that terrible battle, it runs pretty deep with me too.

There were no graves for the In-Charge's relatives to visit, just the knowledge that the bodies of their beloved men had been lost forever in Flanders mud. But we found their names - at long last - carved on the great wall at Tyne Cot, where 12,000 soldiers are buried and another 35,000 have their names inscribed on the wall, because they too were never found. It was a naked moment for us all - a raw, vulnerable sensation of being laid bare, feeling the loss of them, the waste, all over again, despite the years, despite the generations.

I say us, because our son was there as well. He had been asked to make a speech on that memorable occasion. The Queen was present, and Prince Philip, and the Queen of the Belgians (their King was in hospital at the time), and representatives of all the Allied armies, and Governments. It amounted to a lot of Big White Chiefs and scrambled egg on shoulders.

I am lucky enough to have a DVD of my son's speech, as one of the many cameramen present sent it to me afterwards - a kindness I greatly appreciated. I also found it on YouTube recently, to my surprise, and if you'd like to watch it, you can, via this link:

(The coverage starts 40 seconds into the recording, and finishes 4.40 later)

He was magnificent. Neither the In-Charge nor I could have uttered more than a couple of words without breaking down completely, but No 1 Son did a fantastic job, which only served to make me cry even more.

Ypres, totally destroyed during the battles of Passchendaele, was identically rebuilt after the War. The Last Post has been sounded every evening since the end of WW1 at the town's Menin Gate - except during Hitler's occupation

The next day, we were taken to the battlefield where they died - and someone who knows a great deal about military tactics and even more about Passchendaele, explained just why the In-Charge's great uncle Ronald was killed.

It was a quiet field, sloping gently upwards to a small knoll of trees, and planted with cabbages.
Such an innocent-looking landscape. You would never guess how many men lie beneath it.
Beautiful boys, just like my son, most of them.
It was the slope that killed Ronald - he'd been given the almost impossible task of leading his men up the hill to take the German position at the top. There was nowhere for them to hide, and the Germans just picked them off.
His father, Harry, died because when Ronald was brought into his headquarters, mortally wounded, Harry insisted on going to find a doctor to try and help his son. Lieutenant-Colonels weren't generally cannon-fodder in the First World War, but on that occasion Harry, a veteran soldier, was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the saddest part of all is that no doctor could have saved Ronald at that stage, anyway.

We found their names, at last

Melancholy thoughts for a Monday afternoon. Thoughts prompted by the year that's in it, and by the fact that - just two months into2014 - every time you turn on the radio or the television, the Ukraine is teetering on the brink of something potentially explosive, potentially disastrous.

I was in Sligo Town earlier on, and the chap behind the counter of a shop I visited spurned my platitude about the gloriously sunny day.
'I wonder what will happen in the Ukraine?' he said.
We talked about it for a few minutes.
'The guy I work with is Polish,' he commented. 'He says if anything happens in the Ukraine, Poland will probably get involved, and he will have to go home and join the army - all his family are in Poland.'

Who could blame him?
When the politicians and financiers and economists string us up in the tangled webs they weave, what option are we left with but to defend the values, the people, the land - all the things we love most and hold most sacred.
I came away feeling that, collectively, we have all been here before.
And perhaps, collectively, learned very little.

The memorial at Tyne Cot, bearing Kipling's words: 'Their Names Liveth For Evermore'


  1. Hello Lorely,

    What a very moving and personal account you give here of aspects of the First World War and, how tragically, they relate to the very sad situation which appears to be emerging in the Ukraine.

    The numbers killed in the War were dizzying. A complete generation of young men virtually wiped out. And, throughout the length and breadth of England one is conscious of so many lives lost and in some cases whole villages left without any adult men at all.

    How proud you must have been of your son giving the speech. Not an easy task at all and, as you say, difficult to speak without breaking down emotionally. It is so good that you have a DVD which captures the moment for ever.

  2. A very poignant peace which, as you say, is also timely. It seems that the lessons of war, of the senseless loss of young lives, go unheard.
    I have a memorial card somewhere of a young man, a cousin of my Mums, who died just days before the First World War ended, and I always think it sad to see the names of those who died far from home inscribed on church walls.Although it is only recently that people have begun to remember these war dead in Ireland.

  3. What happened back then was insanity. What has changed? Too little. My grandfather was an Irishman serving in the First World War. His name is on a plaque in the Church of Ireland parish where he grew up. My aunt, now 103, remembers him leaving and thankfully returning home at the end of it. My grandmother lost her brother. Visiting the trenches and cemeteries of northern France is a deeply moving experience, as is the memorial every evening at the Menin Gate. It brings home the tragic waste of youth. Whilst politicians play war games each and every person should refuse to take part, Politicians, without cannon fodder, cannot wage war.

  4. I have just come across a poem by Owen Sheers called Mametz Wood where many Welsh soldiers died. I can't find it online, so I have just typed it out for you:

    Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers

    For years afterwards the farmers found them -
    the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
    as they tended the land back to itself.

    A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
    the relic of a finger, the blown
    and broken bird’s egg of a skull,

    all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
    across this field where they were told to wak, not run,
    towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.

    And even now the earth stands sentinel,
    reaching back into itself for reminders of waht happened
    like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.

    This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
    a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
    their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre

    in boots that outlasted them,
    their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
    and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.

    As if the notes theyhad sung
    have only now, with this unearthing,
    slipped from their absent tongues.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to do that Isobel. It is a beautiful and moving poem, and sums up so much of that terrible war and how we still live with it today. They constantly unearth bodies in Belgium too, they told us.

      My computer, for some reason best known to itself, no longer tells me when someone has commented on my blog, so I have only just stumbled on this comment of yours. Thank you for leaving it.


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