Monday, August 20, 2007

All quiet on the Western Front

I returned to Britain through the back roads of Northern France.
Instead of the speed of the uncluttered motorways, I took it slowly on smaller roads. Just South of Arras I found the first Commonwealth cemetery. Then another, then another, on the outskirts of this unprepossessing northern French town. The winding road from Amiens made Arras seem a long distance, but I suspect that for the Tommys moving up to the front, the sight of each sign post was knell bringing them another mile closer to the mincing machine of the Arras salient.
North from Arras lies a ridge that dominates the low ground, and from here the Germans pinned down the Imperial army- for such was the British army of the time. Eventually after a horrific bloodbath, the Canadians, who had become the shock troops in the salient- were able to storm the concrete trenches on Vimy Ridge on April 12th 1917. The artillery barrage that proceeded the storming of the ridge is said to ave been the most intense in history- and the astonishing pockmarks of crater upon crater even today gives witness to just how terrifying the battle must have been. It is not too much, perhaps, to say that in winning the first major allied victory on the Western front the Canadians came of age as a nation. Yet at what a horrific cost. Canada lost her innocence, and the flowers of the forest that still lie strewn across the battlefield- for sixty thousand bodies are unaccounted for on the Western front- taught Canadians the limits of their trust in the Empire of which they were a part. It was only 14 years later, with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, that formally ended the legal subservience of the old dominions. As with Gallipoli for the Anzacs, Vimy for Canada was a dreadful lesson, and from then on, the Dominions would be equal, and increasingly separate. After the war, with the loss of Ireland, in fact Britain lost more territory than Germany. All was indeed "changed utterly".
Moving north from Arras, more and still more cemeteries- there are over a thousand British and Commonwealth cemeteries- Indian cupolas mark cremations. Australian stars, New Zealand southern crosses, Canadian maple leaves, Scottish thistles, the county badges of English regiments like the Middlesex Pals or the Sherwood Foresters mark grave after grave. Nearly one million men were killed over the course of four appalling years. Even those who have graves may be nameless- nearly 300,000 graves, like the picture above, are marked "A Soldier of The Great War, known unto God".
Crossing the border into Belgium, still more names from our history- Mons, Le Cateau, Loos, where Kipling lost his only son. Eventually one arrives at the greatest British charnel house of all: Wipers, Ypres, now known in Flemish as Ieper.
Here my great-grandfather was gassed at Passchendaele, though since it took him six years to die, he is not recorded as a casualty. He volunteered in 1914, served on the Western Front, then posted to Italy, where he was injured at the slaughter of Caporetto- perhaps the biggest single allied catastrophe in the West. After recovery he was sent to Ypres a few weeks later- my grandmother still has a pen and ink sketch he made behind the lines there. After the third battle of Ypres- Paesschendaele- he still fought, even with only half a lung, until the bitter end on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
I went to the Menin gate, where the 60,000 or so with no known grave are commemorated. Each day the last post is played at 8 o'clock. Yet, all I could think was the same thought that came to me in the midst of the stones of a cemetery marking the graves of so many young men: How could we have done this? How could this have happened?
The last remaining British soldier to have fought on the Western front came here last week. He laid flowers at a cemetery.
A German cemetery.
It seemed as powerful a gesture as he could make on the pity of war.
Silent and tearful. I returned to the comforts of home.

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