Hazel McHaffie

war graves

66 letters – lest we forget

I love to read books that brilliantly evoke a time and place, where the language as well as the descriptions are perfectly pitched, where you can totally immerse yourself in a different world. You can feel the heat and vast expanses of Africa in this extract, can’t you?

When you drive through the Kalahari, there’s barely a tree or a rise; there’s nothing but a bleached-out view up ahead of you and a stunning silence. The air is so clear that objects miles away seem close and sound travels in a peculiar way, feeling close to you too. The sunburned plains shimmer beneath the blue African sky and you feel you’ll never reach the horizon. Occasionally you come across the rivelled carcass of a buck or the ghost of an elephant. As you sit there at the wheel, you become part of an infinite world, a dream world so beguiling that you’re tempted to fall asleep and never wake up. (Carolyn Slaughter in Before the Knife)

And sense the frustrations and vexations of post-war Britain here:

It’s 1920. A time when becoming ‘properly vexed’ is considered in poor taste, when ordinary people are beaten down by rules and queues, third sons are unexpectedly inheriting vast estates, flesh and hope had been splattered across the fields of Flanders, the women’s ability to have fun had been blown away with their husbands’ limbs and brains. (Adele Parks in Spare Brides)

You can lose yourself in another time.

So, this week I was intrigued to read about a new book published on July 1 to coincide with the centenary of the Great War; a book which could well lead to other re-creations of that terrible time. It’s called Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, by military historian Sarah Warne. She cleverly built up to publication day by tweeting out a single example of an epitaph from the war graves each day. They make poignant reading, putting humanity into mass slaughter, the individual into faceless thousands; lest we hide behind the inconceivable numbers and forget that each one was someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, father. Rather like the piles of shoes on display at Auschwitz, or the field of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted at the Tower of London to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, they bring us face to face with the gruesome reality.

And I was fascinated to hear the history of these short tributes. The Imperial War Graves Commission were so set on fairness and fittingness that they did their best to ensure money, rank and privilege did not show on any of the graves; the dead heroes would lie together, equal before God and men. But in the end the Commission gave way to pressure and conceded that bereaved relatives could if they wished append a message of their choice, provided it was no more than 66 letters/spaces.

If you’ve ever visited the war graves in Europe you’ll know the awesome reverence that hangs over them. I find the inscription ‘A Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’, very moving. It always makes me think of my uncle, who was in all probability blown to smithereens on the Somme, during the week of his 21st birthday, although my grandmother was simply told he was missing, presumed dead.

Used under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike License

Thiepval Memorial (Used under Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike License)

A tiny fragment of his body could, I presume, lie in one such grave.

Nevard-panelHis name (Nevard HP) is etched onto the memorial at Thiepval, but there was to be no marked grave, no 66 letter epitaph for him.

His memory lives on in the family’s hearts and history.

 

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At the Going Down of the Sun

Thiepval memorialMy uncle Harold lies somewhere in France, killed in the battle of the Somme. Well, actually ‘missing presumed dead’. His name is carved at the top of a list on the Thiepval memorial on the site.

He was 21 years of age. Much the same age as the main characters in At the Going Down of the Sun by Elizabeth Darrell which I’ve just finished reading. And in a way he has come alive for me through this epic tale of World War I.

At the Going Down of the SunIt’s not a book for the faint-hearted – either in size (a doorstopper at 591 densely typed pages) or in content. But look past the horrible cover and occasional grammatical lapses and it’s well worth the effort.

The Sheridan boys were born into wealth and property, but they grow up deprived of the love of parents. Roland is the steady responsible eldest, surrogate father to his brothers, looking forward to the life of a respected surgeon, enjoying his beloved horses and the family estate. Rex is the handsome fun-loving middle one, besotted with aeroplanes, who soon becomes a hero, an ace pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Christopher is both beautiful and academically brilliant, but after his very first five minute fumble in the dark, he is forced into a teenage marriage to preserve the honour of the local doctor’s daughter, Marion, who seduced him.

But fate has very different plans in store for them when first their father commits suicide in Madeira, and then Britain goes to war. All three suffer unspeakable horrors. Their minds as well as their bodies are ravaged.

Nineteen year old Chris enlists to escape the nightmare of his marriage. But his brilliant mind and deficient eyesight are wholly unsuited to life as a soldier where ‘danger had become almost a friend; bullets whistled past their nonchalance as an accepted part of each day.’  The sight of his friend minus half a head, and the homosexual overtures of a close colleague, coupled with the terror of the Gallipoli landing, drive him to the very edge of insanity.

As he walks towards a ‘certain-death’ assignment he is ‘filled with anguish of knowing a man’s mind and senses counted for nothing. It was his body that was valued – by girls who longed for physical conquest, by men whose desires were perverted, by war leaders who wanted a figurehead for doomed men. For nineteen years he had revelled in the philosophies of wisdom, the refinements of culture, the language of beauty, and the infinite complexity of profundity. Yet, in the end, it seemed all he was was a bag of hay.’

Chris’ psychiatric illness forces his elder brother Roland to enlist in spite of his conscience. His experience is of medicine in the trenches, boys rotting and losing their minds before his very eyes. There’s the occasional heroic deed: performing a tracheostomy using a bayonet and a gas whistle. But mostly it’s pure drudgery: foot-rot, dysentery, infected rat-bites, shell-shock, trench fever, even measles, and all this trapped in claustrophobic earth dugouts just a few feet wide, that fill up with waist high slimy water when ‘the non-stop drenching cold rain of approaching winter’ sets in. He is utterly exhausted, filthy, infested with body lice, demoralised himself, but the work is relentless, every day a living nightmare.

The noise was a non-stop pressure on ear-drums and senses – the whine and crump of heavy shells, the whistle of mortar-mines, the steady crack of rifle-fire, the clangour of the gas-gong, the tortured screams of men. Thick smoke everywhere, flying earth and other indescribable fragments, the silent choking killer that penetrated men’s lungs and left them to die slowly and agonisingly, The excited commands in high boyish voices as subalterns prepared to repulse a bayonet attack; the gruffer roar of experienced N.C.O’s (sic) as they repeated the commands. The oaths, the profanities, the careless bravado, the stifled fear, the cries for help, the sobbing over a slaughtered friend: all these were part of the real battle, Roland discovered.

The middle son is daredevil Rex who quickly notches up an outstanding tally of deaths (human and aeroplane). He’s a legend and a hero to most of his colleagues and compatriots. He’s feted by the public at home. He gets the girl everyone desires. But underneath the bravado he is a tortured soul. When he’s challenged and condemned by a group of crusading women, he realises they ‘had no notion of the sadness and anxiety he had suffered over his poor young brother, or the anguish of seeing friends sizzling into piles of blackened flesh. … Did they have nightmares and wake up in a sweat? Did they have to live a pretence and hide the terrible truth?

This book takes us closer to that truth. We feel the enormity of what happened in those grim years, 1914-1918, when my uncle lost his life. The extreme youth of those poorly trained combatants. The rudimentary machines and technology. The effect of repeated loss. The fate of conscientious objectors.

I was forcibly reminded of my visits to the war graves in France. Standing silent before those tombstones. The ones that simply state: ‘A soldier – known unto God’. Shocked and saddened. Moved to tears.

During his time at the front Roland Sheridan writes a series of letters graphically describing his experiences. They – and this whole book – are ‘really a cry to the next generation never to let this happen again.’ It’s a gripping and emotional read and I highly recommend it.

 

 

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