Thursday 5 April 2012

We will remember them

Every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres, at the going down of the sun, a large crowd gathers in respect and expectation. Every evening, without fail, buglers march out, the crowd falls silent and holds its breath as the proud and mournful Last Post is sounded.
But pride can slip easily into bitterness among the fields of Flanders and the valleys of the Somme. For here the inhumanity of war is uncovered, just as farmers’ ploughs today churn up a chip of backbone, a stick of rib and a curved piece of skull. One hundred years on, shells and bullets, many still live, are also a perpetual harvest. I toured the Western Front to try to understand our nation’s degradation of its youth, but could only scratch the surface of comprehension. I could only stand and stare.
Their names are listed row upon row on the Menin Gate, utterly shocking in their thousands but actually a mere drop in the ocean among the endless cemeteries and battle grounds. The Tommies gave their theatre of war a human and humorous edge, naming places Hellfire Corner, Suicide Road and Blood Alley. They called their tanks Fritz Flatteners. They laughed, of course, or else they died. (After all, it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)
Stand on the Messines Ridge with binoculars and you can see almost the whole of the Line, stretching from Loos in the south to Passchendaele in the north. And in this benign landscape, force yourself to imagine the filth and the noise of war: the firestorm at Hooge where burning oil was jettisoned over trenches, the poisonous quagmire of Ploegsteert, the violent slaughter in the wire at Beaumont Hammel. In Sanctuary Wood, you can still touch bullet holes in the blasted, ragged trees. Watch the river Somme make its peaceful wide sweep through rolling countryside further south and learn of the revolting carnage at Serre where the mowing down of a generation occurred in approximately ten minutes.
The enormity of the numbers of the dead is beyond belief; the staggering amount who were simply “lost” and unaccounted for driven home by the single and empty word on missing French soldiers' headstones: Inconnu. The monument at Thiepval will leave you gaping and speechless. All these placenames, notorious, stagnant and cold in our collective psyche, should be carved onto every school curriculum.
As the sun goes down over the Western Front, the wind picks up and the grasses rustle but the earth remains silent. And, in the morning, people rebuild their lives. With nonchalant shrugs, farmers erect barns over mine chambers still packed with explosives, they use former dug-outs as wine cellars, they plough up the white bones of century-old youth while birds continue to sing from the hedgerows. Life goes on here because that is what they ceased living for. And they remain in the cemeteries, legions of them, lying perfectly still, perfectly regimented, under pristine headstones.
All seems peaceful on the Western Front. All quiet apart from, of course, the bird song.

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