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.