Sitting in the shade at Tyne Cot, we talked about the school groups who come from England, ‘Are these visits positive, or do they trivialise the war -- turn it into another 'to do' thing on a school trip? Is it better that these groups come with their assignments to find Private So-and-So and leave him a poem that they had written in class and laminated saying ‘we will never forget you and we honour your sacrifice’? To leave little red poppies on sticks? Or is it better that students just learn the bare bones of history? ’
‘I think it’s guilt-based,’ Sophia said. ‘These English groups, the adults that run them and the kids that come, have no experience of sacrifice – not on this kind of scale. The soldiers buried here and what they did are irrelevant today. The world has changed so much. But people feel guilty about that, so they create a cult of glory to honour them.
‘Also,’ she continued. ‘Where are all the Germans? Why don’t they have huge beautiful cemeteries, long lists of names of their missing and dead, memorials in fields? I’m not English – so why should I care about the English dead more than the German dead? Why should I consider their sacrifice greater?’
With these questions buzzing in our minds, we left, muscles and seat bones protesting more than ever, and shortly afterwards, Sophia rebelled.
‘I don’t want to go to Langemarck!’ she declared. ‘I don’t want to ride another 12 kilometres! What’s there except more gravestones? I’ve seen enough of them already!’ Alex looked disappointed. ‘Mr Young said that we should go there,’ he said. ‘Apparently it’s totally different from the British places.’
I backed Alex. There was nothing physically wrong with Sophia, she was just tired and hot. But I could not send her back alone, and giving up our only chance to complete the visit because she was a little sore was not on the cards. So I got brutal, and with bad grace she trailed along behind us.
In the event, she was glad that she had gone. Langemarck is totally different than the Commonwealth cemeteries: of dark stone and overshadowed by oak trees it has a brooding air accentuated by the sculpture of mourning soldiers that stands on its far edge. We met a retired teacher from Nottingham there and we discussed the coming of school groups, many of which he had led.
‘Yes, English schools come here – you can see by the wreaths left on this big central area. Now, my home football ground, Nottingham Forest’s stadium, seats 25,000 people, and I used to tell my groups that that’s the number of people buried in the giant pit in front of where you’re standing…’ Too much to take in: a whole stadium’s worth buried in a plot thirty metres by thirty?
‘Many of the German dead were never found,’ he continued. ‘Let alone collected for burial.’ Where the Belgians have given land to the Commonwealth in perpetuity, the Germans had to pay rent for their plots, and conditions were such at the end of the war that there were simply no resources to build cemeteries and identify bodies. ‘Also, don’t forget, we won. And a part of that victory was blaming and humiliating Germany and – in retrospect – sowing the seeds of the Second World War in the ashes of the first. With all that going on, the Germans had great difficulty in honouring their dead…’ (Any German readers willing or interested in commenting on this – I would value your input as the experience raised many issues for us…)
We couldn’t linger. Although we still had a few hours’ grace we needed to return the bikes by seven, eat, and get to the Menin Gate for the 8 p.m Last Post, so we paid our respects to the 44,292 Germans – and two English –who lie in Langemark, and raced back to Ypres.
‘If you don’t have a lump in your throat when that bugle blows,’ Mr Young, Alex and Sophia’s history teacher, had told me. ‘You’re not ‘uman…’ I found it hard to feel any emotion save irritation among a jostling crowd, each person straining for a vantage point for their video or still camera. The volunteer buglers from the Ypres Fire Department marched out, and complete silence fell. The clear notes of the Last Post sounded, followed by a piper with Amazing Grace. Two school groups laid wreaths. Then suddenly it was over, traffic noise and conversation replacing the seething, loaded silence.
‘It’s different every time,’ the teacher from Nottingham said as we met walking back to the square. ‘Last time I was here, I was chatting to some of the school kids – very polite and respectful they were, too. I told them that my dad had served in the trenches and that I had been evacuated in the next lot, and one big black lad of about sixteen – at least a six-footer – started pumping my hand, tears streaming down his cheeks. ‘Thanks-you, sir!’ he kept saying. ‘Thank-you!’ Very respectful… These trips mean a lot to the kids, and this ritual never fails to move me.’ And it moved me, too, once I stopped fighting the crowd and trying to see; once I let the experience and the meaning behind it sink into my consciousness.
Back at Talbot House, John spent several hours chatting to us. How I wished that we had talked like that two nights earlier! He shared some of the Power Point presentations that he had put together on excavation and reconstruction, particularly of the nearby Yorkshire trench with which he’s been actively involved, and he related local stories which revealed the extent to which World War One is still present in every day life.
‘A chap not far from here lit a bonfire in his garden,’ he related. ‘There he was, tendin’ it, when ‘Boom!’ Happen ‘e lit it on top of a buried shell. Killed ‘im outright.’
‘When remains are found – usually in the course of road works or building, the police are called in order to rule out recent homicide. When personal effects show which country the soldier came from, the ambassadors are called, archaeologists come and see what else of interest is in the area, and the soldiers are given proper burial.’ Tickets for such interments – not infrequent events – are much sought-after.
One of John’s presentations covered the dedication of the new cemetery last year in Fromelles, France which contains the graves of 250 Australian and British troops killed in a failed feint during the Somme offensive The Australians are far ahead of the British in DNA identification, but many British soldiers are identifiable by cap badges and personal possessions. ‘Trouble is,’ John continued sadly but with the straightforwardness of the professional soldier that he had been. ‘Many of the remains consist only of the pelvis and long bones. The intense shellfire destroyed everything above the hips which is where you would find most identifying marks – identity discs soon deteriorated anyway.’ For so many thousands of the dead of 1914-1918, their epitaph reads ‘An Unknown Soldier of the Great War’. So many thousands still lie undiscovered.
The train journey back – from Poperinge to Cortrijk to Lille, to and across Paris, and finally to Macon Loche gave us plenty of time to discuss the previous three days. Both Alex and Sophia enjoyed the trip, aches and pains notwithstanding. ‘What I don’t get,’ said Alex. ‘Is that Willy, Nicky, and George were all cousins. Couldn’t they just sit down and figure this thing out without killing millions of people? We’re not talking rogue states or terrorist groups here – the bottom line is that the war was a family squabble about territory and power. And look what happens…’
‘I don’t care about the politics,’ was Sophia’s line. ‘I care about the people, the soldiers, whatever side they were on. And I want the Germans’ losses and pain to be recognised, too.’