We will remember them

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Ten years ago I visited the war graves in Belgium with a group of other theological students. It was a trip that has stayed with me since and which I shall never forget. The organisers were Toc-H and we stayed in a house in Poperinge, the first resting place for soldiers behind the trenches. It was a week of stories.

We heard of Tubby Clayton, the Chaplain, and why the sign above the house (Abandon Rank All Ye Who Enter Here) was so important. We heard of the people of Poperinge and how they kept the story alive during WW2 and looked after the contents of the house.  We sat in the hop loft which had become a chapel with a carpenter’s bench for an altar and banners embroidered by the men.

We visited Hill 69 and walked silently through the trenches. Even the schoolchildren were quiet that day. We looked at sepia photographs of death, giving thanks that red blood doesn’t show in sepia.  I remember horses dying in trees. A horse up a tree? It defied logic.

We visited war graves, row upon row of white crosses, name upon name engraved.  Some with no names – Known to God Alone.  And the German cemetery, solemn in the shade that day, and we wondered at the Jewish names who fought for Germany in WW1 but how things would change.  We stood at the Menin Gate while the last post was played and we wept.

We visited the Pool of Peace, once a bomb crater and now a place of harmony and birdsong. Did we see frogs too or have I imagined that? We went round the most amazing museum with sounds and smells and drama.

And at the end of each day we gathered to pray and to talk and learn from one another. I remember wondering about the women, for our days had been filled with masculine images. What of those women who waited at home, who had to take on difficult jobs because there were no men to do them? The mothers, the wives and girlfriends, and the children. What were their stories? How were their lives affected when their men didn’t come home?

I have no war stories to tell. My grandfathers were too young for WW1 and too old for WW2. I don’t know of any other relatives who fought or died. But although these stories are not part of my history, I now feel that I have dipped my toe in the war narrative and will tell the stories that I have learned to all who will listen.

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7 thoughts on “We will remember them

  1. There were also the women who were nurses or who were refugees or who worked in relief efforts near the front.

    One of my grandfathers was too young and the other made the mistake of taking a summer vacation in Germany in 1914 (he was interned as an enemy civilian for the duration). A future great-uncle was a schoolboy in England and as a Hungarian was also interned as an enemy civilian (later paroled into the care of his future wife’s family); his brother was killed in the war (fighting for Austria-Hungary). One of my great-grandfathers was nearly killed at Gallipoli and got a DSO; I’ve read copies of some of his letters. One of his sons who fought in France never fully recovered.

    One of my grandmothers was a pacifist and visited imprisoned conscientious objectors. At least two of a great grandfather’s female first cousins served with the British Quakers in helping refugees in France.

  2. It certainly was a powerful place, and a powerful time. On my visit, the year after yours I still remember the schoolchildren splashing in the trenches of Hill 69, until one asked “did people really die here?”. They all fell silent when they heard the answer, until one fell in a puddle and they all burst out laughing. There were a few tuts from some, but my heart warmed to hear the laughter of teenagers in a place where teenagers bled and cried. Somehow it made sense of the incomprehensible.

  3. Thanks for the blog. Although I am in my fifties I have the privilege of having had a Dad who was a soldier in the First World Ward (he was in his fifties himself before I came along). He was a stretcher bearer on the Western Front and I remember he talked about his Mother, my grandmother, at home. Her husband had been a reservist and at the start of the war had been called up and quickly sent to France (like my Dad he survived but unlike my Dad he didn’t live long after the war as he died from the effects of what was then called ‘shell shock’ within a few years. My grandfather had gone to France leaving my Grandmother and six children at home. My Dad was the eldest at eighteen and seen as the ‘head of the family at home’. He fell in behind an army recruiting band, signed up, and then went home to tell his Mother. He sometimes talked of how distraught his mother was to know that not only her husband but her eldest son were going away (and I think she was well aware of the dangers). Within a further year of the start of the war her second eldest son had also signed up.
    I remember a couple of other particular stories about women’s involvement in that war – just anecdotal stuff (and told from Dad’s point of view) but important I believe.
    My Dad used to talk about the few days off he and his comrades got between the awful front line duties they had. He talked of the kindly and often elderly French women whose houses were opened as cafes and who provided egg and chips with a glass of wine (always with sugar added to suit British palates).
    He also spoke of cradling a dying young German soldier in his arms and how the young man managed to reach into his pocket and pull out a picture of his mother and a piece of paper with his home address on. My Dad wrote after the war, sending the picture. I have to confess I do not know if he knew whether it was received safely.

  4. Thank you, Adrian, for sharing your stories about women affected by war. I can’t imagine how awful she felt when her sons signed up along with her husband. You’d live with fear daily, wouldn’t you?

  5. My grandparents met in France, she was a WAAC and he a member of the Australian Mounted Corps. They married at Boulogne Base on 1st January 1919, marriage certificate is signed by the CinC of forces as she had to have his permission to marry as she was in the ‘care of the king’ as a service person!

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