This spring, me, my dad and brother took a trip to Flanders to see my Great Grandad’s war grave. He’s buried in a quiet corner of a churchyard in a small town in Belgium.
On getting to Flanders you see multiple British WWI graveyards. From small clusters in quiet village corners (usually the scene of a battle) to purpose built sites like Tyne Cot.
Over here, we have War Memorials in parks, squares and on streets as there was no repatriation of the fallen. It was highly controversial at the time and I can see why. As someone born many years after, the sheer number of dead didn’t really exist in my psyche. Go to Flanders and see for yourself - the scale of it. The graves are kept clean, tended and cared for. I couldn’t help but think in a way that the boys who died - were not.
Go to Tyne Cot, the largest site and you’ll hear the last stand and buses of school kids walking among the stones - among people not much older than themselves who died a century earlier.
Films like Peter Jackson’s incredible They Shall Not Grow Old bring back the horror of that war. Because the horror of that war is the horror of all wars. The attacks they suffered weren’t designed to kill solders, they were designed to maim them - and so lessen numbers. If you want to imagine hell, imagine the trenches.
In places like Hill 60 you can still see the landscape scarred by shells and flak. The birds are singing, there’s moss and grass now over those scars, but they’re still visible, made more poignant by life going on and the silence in those places.
So we found my Great Grandad, a Private in the Northumberland Fusiliers and I stood before his grave. I’m much older now than was when he died - and being there, his own blood a couple of generations down was deeply sorrowful for reasons I can’t quite identify. Maybe it was my dad being there, and seeing what it meant to him. Maybe it was that he never came home, and my life goes on, and his doesn’t.
I thought about the ones that made it back - and how they couldn’t talk about it because nobody at home could possibly comprehend what they’d been through. Not the boy’s own adventure promised, but a killing machine. I thought about the ones who were swallowed by the mud never to be recovered. They have a phrase on the graves for the men who couldn’t be identified ‘Known Unto God’.
I buried a one pound coin - all I had on me - in the soft soil around the headstone, and thought ‘I’ll try to remember.’
Just down the road from the grave is the war hospital where he died. It’s a school now, with colourful children’s pictures in the windows. Some research has shown that he actually died by friendly fire during a night battle on a freezing march night, at three in the morning.
Afterwards, we went for a drink and raised a glass to him in the local pub, an Irish bar run by a Frenchman. Life really does goes on.
It’s Remembrance Sunday tomorrow.
Are my teeth set on edge when certain politicians evoke war like rhetoric? Yes. More than before my visit.
Do I comprehend, really comprehend, what this symbol, this flower that grew in the Flanders fields after the war really means? Of course not. It’s too big. That’s why we need a symbol.
Will I buy a poppy this year? Of course I will. It was the first ‘modern war’. The poppy now representing all the fallen. And I’ll try… and try and remember. If nothing else, to never take peace for granted.