Adam Bird

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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Lesson in History

Buttes New British Cemetery

For several years, mainly whilst drinking in the British Legion Club before Gillingham home games, my Dad, my friends and I would talk about visiting France or Belgium to tour some of the battlefields and visit the cemeteries of the fallen during World War One. We talked about Belgian beer and how we might be able to combine the two for a weekend of history, culture and light entertainment. But after talking about it once too many times, a decisive action was required and plans were drawn up once and for all.

History as a child didn't interest me, not in the slightest. I had to choose a humanity subject when I chose my options and the joy of dropping history felt wonderful. It was all in the past, black and white pictures that had no relevance to the ‘real-world’. It was nothing more than ignorance and whilst I wouldn't say that I've developed an insatiable thirst for the subject I've learnt that its relevance cannot be understated and in actually fact, our very existence owes a debt of gratitude for the actions of those that have gone before us.

It was only really as an adult that I started showing an interest, after Dad had joined the Territorial Army and he returned back from weekends away and talked of his trips and re-told some of his discoveries that I began to pay attention. I even accompanied him on one of his trips to Europe, a brief whistle-stop to Vimy Ridge for the afternoon with my grandfather that was a mere extension to a ‘booze cruise’ where we shuttled over and made the most of the cheap duty-free beer at the time. But that brief experience provided so much, and to see it in more detail became a genuine thing to do as opposed to simply appeasing my Dad’s requests.

Our first stop was Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, the final burial place of Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, one of only three men in history to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice. The cemetery is located within a small hamlet on a roundabout and is one of 205 cemetery’s in the Ypres Salient area.

It felt strangely out of place, we arrived early in the morning and we were by far and away the earliest visitors of the day. The cemetery lies tucked away behind the gardens of neighbouring houses on a road void of tarmac and under construction or repair. That first visit is the worse one emotionally, suddenly seeing the immaculate line of gravestones and reading the messages that have been left from all over the world, “We will remember you forever, Lucy, age 6, New Zealand” and seeing the words inscribed on the headstone “A soldier of the Great War - known unto God”.

For all the men that are revered and talked about and have Wikipedia entries under their name, there are hundred of thousands of others who are soulless bodies that have had their name detached from them and inscribed on a monument some place else.

If I come across suddenly knowledgeable, like claiming to know the story of Noel Chavasse then I apologise. Everything written here I've either learnt from my Dad who played our guide over the course of the weekend, or is further information that I've looked up online in response to those new discoveries. Gareth and Foordy, my two friends who accompanied us on the trip were equally grateful for the depth of knowledge and information that Dad shared. With it being Father’s day on the Sunday I couldn't have wished for a better time to feel a huge sense of pride in him and thankful that I've still got someone to look up to at the age of 35, two years older than Chavasse was when he was killed.

With so much to see and the scale of everything so truly difficult to comprehend it is helpful to try and put some context to the situation. We visited the Passchendaele memorial museum, which is a collection of replica trenches, dugouts and collection of memorabilia housed in a rebuilt châteaux. Included in the museum is some rather haunting artwork depicting some of the hopeless scenes from the battlefields which provided some difficult answers to my main question ‘how did so many soldiers become ‘known only to God’?’. The answer isn't easy, but seeing raised hands pointed to the ceiling from a field of mud offered a profound experience as any felt at any point over the weekend.

After a morning of reflection and dark discoveries, it felt like an appropriate time to enjoy what the other half of the weekend was about - Belgian hospitality.

Now my knowledge of Belgian beer is as good as my history, namely non-existent. So when presented with a ‘bierkaart’ which carried nearly 100 names I took what I believed to be a logical approach. The same way I choose horses from the list when the Grand National comes around. If the name sounds good, the beer must be good! So a bottle of Kwak it was! Which arrived with a rather odd wooden contraption attached to it - all part of the wonderful journey of discovery that travel brings.

Talking of which, another thing that I learnt... ordinarily when ordering food from a menu, the words ‘cheese and ham toasted sandwich’ would get sniffed at and something more adventurous would be chosen. But label the same item as “Croque Monsieur”, they become immediately more appealing… so much so we all had one...

It wouldn’t have been a bad idea had someone suggested staying in De Volksbond for the rest of the afternoon, but there was still so much to see.

Nearby lies the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British Military Cemetery in the world. 34,887 names are listed on a giant wall which forms the northern perimeter of the plot of land in which the cemetery sits. Each name commemorates a soldier missing in action, which is in addition to the 11,954 graves that make up the cemetery census. Of those 11,954 graves, 8,367 as marked as unidentified burials. This statistic was repeated over and over again over the course of the weekend and continued to be the biggest thing for me to get my head around.

Tyne Cot and each of the other cemeteries we visited over the course of the weekend are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an organisation set up as a direct consequence of the first world war. There are cemeteries all over the world, all maintained and looked after by the CWGC and judging by what we witnessed over the weekend they do a staggering job. Each and every one of the graves was immaculate, with information and visitors books supplied at each site. There has been a push over the past few years to ensure that they are at their most pristine, what with the centenary events that are happening over the next few years, but even once the commemorations are over the CWGC will continue to do what they've done for the past 100 years.

Our accommodation was in Ypres, a city that was destroyed and rebuilt exactly as it stood before hostilities started. It is also home to the Menin Gate, another memorial to the fallen and home to another 50,000 names of those whose graves are unknown. At 8pm, there is a processional ceremony of remembrance where the Last Post is played and a story of a soldier is told to the crowd - even if nobody is in attendance. This homage has been performed daily since 1928 and is intended to continue in perpetuity.

As the minute silence passed by and the dignitaries laid their poppies I felt slightly ashamed of myself. This event had been happening every day for nearly 100 years and I had never heard of it. 13,000 men were buried less than 3km away and goodness knows how many more in the wider area, and I never knew about it either. Grainy black and white images that had no relevance to the real world? What a stupid boy I was!

It wasn't until the following day, whilst visiting the Liverpool Scottish memorial stone at Bellewaarde that things began to make a semblance of sense. The stone is much like many of the memorials dotted around and that we visited. But this was in the middle of a field next to a copse of trees and a mine crater which acted as a permanent reminder of war. Out of all the places we visited this one felt the closest to the picture that I had built up in my mind of where I imagined it would be. Dad was telling another one of his stories and if you closed your eyes you could vividly imagine the noise of shelling and bombing overhead, it was that atmospheric. The generation of World War One survivors has long since passed. Leaving ghosts behind, names and those more fortunate, stories of their existence. Those stories Dad filled us with all weekend are those that have been passed down and immortalised for us, and for those who live long after us. I may well have been naive, ignorant and not interested as a child, but as an adult have been given a responsibility to ensure that those stories are continued. That when Oliver, Hayden and their generation grow up, that despite their personal ignorances they are given the opportunities to listen, learn and discover the past as I have done.

Human beings have committed gross atrocities against one another throughout history. But the first world war was a four year battle of attrition that neither side particularly wanted. Millions of lives were lost, for what? The answers, unlike World War Two are less clear, but they fought for us and gave their lives so we may live in peace. We say that we shall remember them and it’s all very well doing it once a year, but come November 11th this year I will truly mean it.

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