“The soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace.”
(Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate).
by Evelyn McKechnie
I have guided groups, large and small visiting the battlefields of France and Belgium for over 15 years. There are many personal stories from these visitors of their loved ones that I carry with me. Sad, poignant and uplifting at times.
I sometimes wonder about the courage of ordinary men and women during the Great War and the Second World War, those on the Home Front, those on the Front Line and those under occupation. Asking myself, could I have done that? I also include in that, the courage of the conscientious objector. Some served as stretcher-bearers during the Great War and had a very high casualty rate.
Kindness and Bravery
The most astonishing acts of kindness and bravery happen when our world looks the bleakest. It could be the young French women who helped many of the downed fliers over the Somme during World War Two or a Tommy who had to continue fighting after his best mate was blown up beside him. Or just a kind word from a nurse, holding a young soldier’s hand while he is crying out for his mother. Most acts of bravery never saw a glint of a medal.
We are heading towards another Remembrance Day and I will always try to remember the sacrifice, including my father’s youngest brother, killed in Normandy after landing on D-Day.
My father was could not understand my interest in ‘wars’. He reminded me a bit of Harry Patch, in that he also never liked to talk about war. My father once told me if a man started talking about the Second World War in a pub, he would just get up and go. I explained it was people’s stories that I was intrigued with, not necessarily the military history. I have always been fascinated by how ordinary people do extraordinary things – even when they are faced with unimaginable fear.
Harry Patch – the Last Fighting Tommy
One of the best books I have ever read about the Great War was ‘The Last Fighting Tommy, the story of Harry Patch’, the ‘last surviving veteran of the trenches’.
The way he spoke of the bond between his Lewis gun team was full of tenderness. They would chat incessantly, sharing everything and wonder would they ever see the sun come up again in the morning. The loss of three of Harry’s mates on 22nd September 1917 would always be his ‘Remembrance Day’.
Harry never spoke about the war, never discussing it with anyone until his later years. It was that painful for him. I was glad he eventually talked with Richard Van Emden to write his memoir, placing his thoughts on the war and his life in print for all time. He once said, ‘Anyone who tells you that in the trenches they weren’t scared, he’s a damned liar: you were scared all the time’.
Harry died in 2009, aged 111.
To commemorate Remembrance Sunday, I am highlighting just a few locations in my Great War App (170 locations in total). Personally, I feel some of these are the most beautiful memorials along the Western Front. There are so many stunning pieces of work, far too many to list here.
No 89 of 170 Arras – Athies, 9th Scottish Division Cairn
The village of Athies was taken by the 9th Scottish Division (including the South African Brigade) on the first day of the Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917 and it remained in the hands of the Allies until the end of the war. The Scottish Memorial was built to honour their sacrifice and is a replica of a cairn erected in 1746 on the battlefield of Culloden.
It takes its name from Pont du Jour, a heavily fortified house between St. Laurent-Blangy and Gavrelle. The Germans often fortified houses and cellars in the villages and they were formidable redoubts.
The cairn is made from Scottish granite blocks piled up following the funerary traditions of the Celts and bears the names of all the battles fought by the Scottish Division during the Great War. The monument is encircled by twenty-six stones which represent the units of the division.
The memorial was unveiled on 9th April 1922, on the fifth anniversary of the battle. This is not the original location as it was moved in 2006, a few hundred metres south of the main carriageway. It is considered to be a lot safer for visitors and is next to the Pont du Jour Military Cemetery.
This cemetery was established during the Battle of Arras to bury the 82 soldiers killed in the assault on the German redoubt at Point-du-Jour, part of the second line of German defence known as the ‘Brown Line’.
Some graves soldiers from the South African Brigade who were also part of the 9th division, nicknamed the division of ‘Jocks and Springboks’. ‘Springbok’ refers to the South African antelope and ‘Jock’ is a Scottish variant of the name ‘Jack’. At the end of the war, a further 650 bodies were brought in from surrounding village cemeteries.
The Grimsby Chums
On 21st May 2001, on the site of the Actiparc industrial park near Arras, a 15m-long pit containing the remains of 20 British soldiers was discovered during preventive archaeological excavations.
They were laid on their backs with their arms crossed. Shoulder insignia on them indicated the Lincolns. The 10th battalion was active in this particular area between 9th and 13th April 1917.
They were subsequently identified as soldiers from the 10th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment – the pals battalion called the ‘Grimsby Chums’. They were later re-interred in Pont Du Jour Cemetery.
Please ensure you access this location through Athies, and follow the CWGC sign at the Rue de Chauffour for the Point du Jour British Military Cemetery.
1 of 170 – Diksmuide – Vladso German Cemetery
This cemetery was first laid out by German soldiers in 1914 for those killed in the battle of the Yser. In 1914 Flanders became a battlefield and it was here that fighting began for every inch of soil, and was so unyielding in its ferocity.
It is the last resting place of Peter Kollwitz, a young student volunteer who was just 17 years old when he was killed near Esen in October 1914. Deeply affected by her son’s death, Käthe Kollwitz created her world-famous sculpture ‘The Grieving Parents’.
The sculpture was many years in the making and was only displayed for the first time in 1932 at the Roggeveld military cemetery at Esen. The grave marker in front of the sculpture group bore the following inscription: ‘Peter Kollwitz Musketier + 23.10.14.’ The parents gaze focuses on the gravestone where Peter is buried. This cemetery and the statue group were moved to their current site in 1957. The burials were brought in from all over Belgium and Vladso is now one of the four great German concentration cemeteries with 25,644 German soldiers buried here.
Käthe Kollwitz was a famous Expressionist artist from Berlin. In 1933 she was removed from the Prussian Academy of Art by the Nazis. Her work was considered to be an example of Entartete Kunst (perverted art) by the Nazis and was removed from most museums and public buildings. Her grandson Peter was killed on the Eastern Front in 1942. Surprisingly, the sculpture survived the Nazi occupation of Belgium during the Second World War.
Today, the German War Graves Commission looks after the sites on behalf of the German government. When the Great War ended in 1918, the war dead in Belgian numbered 134,000 on the German side alone with about 16,500 of those the young volunteers killed in the first autumn battles of 1914. Some soldiers simply disappeared into the fields of Flanders and the Volksbund believes that some 90,000 soldiers are still unidentified or ‘missing’ and believed to be buried in Flanders. This brings the total of German military dead in Flanders to around 210,000.
German cemeteries are not as landscaped or manicured as Commonwealth cemeteries nor do they have flowers like French cemeteries. German cemeteries have a more rugged and natural setting. Nor do they have a regular headstone like Commonwealth graves Portland stone. Some German cemeteries have grave tablets on the ground, some have stone white headstones and some have black iron crosses. It is usual for Germans to be buried in multiple graves.
In Vladso each grave has the bodies of 8 soldiers and the sense of sorrow and loss is keenly felt. “The soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace.” (Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate).
The German War Graves Commission or “Volksbund” have young people throughout Europe attending international youth camps, where they help maintain the sites as well as build bridges of understanding.
60 of 170 – Mesen – Island of Ireland Peace Park
The memorial site is dedicated to the soldiers of Ireland, of all political and religious beliefs, who died, were wounded or missing in the Great War of 1914-1918. As part of the design, the inside of the tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This is the time at which the Armistice was declared and the guns fell silent on the Western Front after four years of fighting.
The tower is an aspiring symbol of reconciliation for only for the past but for the present and future. During the Battle of Messines on 7th June 1917, the Catholic and Protestant Irish Divisions (the 36th Ulster and the 16th Irish) fought side by side to gain the villages of Wijtschate and Mesen.
There are stone tablets on which are engraved some haunting poetry from the soldiers of these divisions including Francis Ledwidge who is buried at Artillery Wood cemetery north of Ypres.
The Island of Ireland Peace Park was officially opened at 11:00 hours on 11th November 1998 by the then President of Ireland Mary McAleese in the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth II and King Albert II of Belgium. Each year a commemorative Remembrance Day service is held at the Tower at 11.00 hours on 11th November.
96 of 170 Arras – Monchy Le Preux 37th English Division
Monchy was a key strategic position which the Germans had taken in October 1914. They heavily fortified the village and incorporated it into the formidable Hindenburg Line.
The Battle of Arras was launched in winter conditions on 9th April 1917 with the weather deteriorating so much that the attack was delayed until 11th April which gave the Germans time to reorganize. The snow fell and the bad weather continued but the 37th Division with the support of 6 tanks managed to get a hold on Monchy on the 11th of April.
The village was eventually cleared of Germans by the Newfoundlanders who succeeded in repelling repeated German counterattacks. The village was retaken by the Germans during the Spring Offensive the following year before finally being liberated by the Canadians.
The stunning memorial of three British infantrymen standing back to back with their rifles at rest commemorates the 37th Division during the First Battle of the Scarpe between 9th and 14th April in 1917, during the Battle of Arras.
Lady Feodora Gleichen sculpted this impressive memorial and was the sister of the Divisions’ commanding officer at Monchy Le Preux. It was inaugurated on the 9th October 1921 in the presence of her brother Major General Lord Edward Gleichen. She died a few months later on 22nd February 1922.
Among many statues, Lady Feodora Gleichen designed are the statue of Florence Nightingale at Derby Royal Infirmary and the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, London.
She was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1922 and was posthumously made the first woman member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors.
How We Remember
There are hundreds upon hundreds of memorials throughout France and Belgium. Some are divisional, some regimental, some national, and some private.
The historian, Helen E Beale, stated, ‘Loss, self-evidently, permeates memory.’ There is remembrance at a national level and those of individual memory. When the soldier’s bodies were not repatriated after the Great War, many towns and villages collectively organised fundraising for a memorial. Simply put, many grieving families could not afford to travel to the battlefields to the graves, and in some cases, there was no grave for their loved ones. They would be commemorated on a memorial to the missing. Even then they could not travel, some had never even travelled a few miles further than their home town.
To grieve was essential and brought communities together at the local war memorial, where there was some physicality for them, their husband or son’s name for them to touch. In the smallest of islands around Scotland, there are memorials to the war dead. Such losses were keenly felt in the crofting communities.
Lyon Street in Glasgow where 18 soldiers perished from one street, five of those from one tenement close, held their own ‘Remembrance Ceremony’ every year. They had their own memorial plaque which unfortunately has been missing for a few years.
All the pomp and ceremony of the parades held no interest just after the Great War for some grieving families, like Harry Patch the pain was too real still. Perhaps the most poignant of memorials are the graves themselves. Even to gaze upon ‘Known unto God’ headstone, is in itself an act of remembrance. Lest We Forget.
“The soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace.”
(Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate)
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