The Spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk france/belgium
Gardens of stone Jeremy Clarke wishes his son had joined him on a tour of the Great War cemeteries
My boy Mark. What a prannet. Months ago he agreed to come on a Holt’s tour of the battlefields and cemeteries of the first world war. The tour was a four-day introduction to the subject, called ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. His great-grandfather fought at the battle of the Somme and his great grandmother’s brother was killed at Ypres. I was very excited at the prospect of touring Delville Wood, Sanctuary Wood, High Wood, Hill 60, the Sunken Road, Tyne Cot, the Menin Gate and Thiepval with my boy. For what else can a father do for his son other than show him a few reasons to feel proud of his country? But I had no word or news of him for several weeks, and on departure day the great pillock failed to turn up or get in touch.
Going dejectedly alone to the first world war battlefields, then, what comfort did I find? Well, for one thing those war cemeteries and memorials run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in northern France and Belgium must be one of the wonders of the world.Though not exactly an impartial observer, Kipling thought so. He called them ‘the biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaohs’. Yet the scale of the losses
Not gone from memory:Lutyens’s arch at Thiepval commemorates the ‘Missing of the Somme’
that these memorials commemorate, and the mindset of the nation they died for, seem beyond reach of the ordinary 21st-century imagination — or mine, at any rate. I looked at the rows of identical, surprisingly modernist, surprisingly democratic, largely secular, white Portland headstones. I read the terse inscriptions, incised in a spare Roman alphabet designed by Macdonald Gill, brother of Eric.
5750 Rifleman V.J. Strudwick The Rifle Brigade, 14th January 1916 Age 15 Not gone from memory Or from love I tried to imagine, to empathise, to emote even. But by and large I failed to get anywhere near them.
The cemeteries are immaculate and, when the shrubs are well-chosen and in bloom, often very beautiful. No two cemeteries are the same. Each has its own tale to tell. Some are built over hastily filled-in shell craters, others over the burial ground of a casualty clearing station. Is it your constant refrain that the world has gone to pot? Then you must go. Go to the old trench line in Belgium and France and relish the perfectionism and respect and the great good taste still shown by the gardeners in the cemeteries and memorials there. Do you go around spluttering, ‘Is nothing sacred any more?’ Go.The psychic power of these memorials to a lost civilisation still has us in its grip.
We were sensitively led by Colonel Simon Doughty, 35 years in the Life Guards. Didacticism plays no part in Colonel Doughty’s person-
ality, for which I was glad. Beyond providing the necessary background information over the four days, and pointing out, where necessary, the respective frontline positions, he sensibly allowed us to try and come to terms with the catastrophe each in our own way. In fact, he seemed to be still trying to come to terms with it himself.
On the final day, the 15 of us on the tour gathered together under the Thiepval arch. If you never go anywhere else, go there. Lutyens’s masterpiece of hollow massiveness is dedicated to the ‘Missing of the Somme’. It was a cloudless day and our little party stood before the stark white catafalque to recite a poem, place a small wreath and observe two minutes’ silence, the traditional conclusion to every Holt’s battlefield tour. Around us, on 16 stone panels, were the inscribed names of 73,000 British soldiers who had disappeared in the fighting — among them one H.H. Munro, aka ‘Saki’.
We were a reserved, even painfully shy little group. No one had said a lot as we toured the killing grounds. We just dismounted from the coach, looked around, then got back on the coach and went on to the next place. We always sat in the same places on the coach.Most had relatives who had fought. It was mostly these dead chaps rather than any small talk about what we did for a living that comprised the rather sparse conversation. When we compared notes, what these relatives who fought had in common was that none of them spoke about their experiences afterwards.
At the tiny Devonshire Regiment cemetery (‘The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still’) I took the visitors’ book from its niche in the wall and scanned the comments. There were the usual sincere clichés. Rest in peace and so on. And then came an entry by an Australian woman that seemed to hit on a truth, and it came to mind again as we stood with heads bowed under Lutyens’s astonishing arches. Her comment was: ‘I can find no words to describe this.’ And then I thought about my boy.
He doesn’t say much, and he would have fitted in very nicely on the tour, I think, if only he’d have come, the bloody tosspot.
● Holts www.holts.co.uk or 01293 865000 email: info@Holts.co.uk