The year 1998 marked the 80th anniversary of the ending of the First Great War. The media tended to focus on two aspects of this occasion. Firstly there were the recordings of the reminiscences of some of the survivors, These programmes were unique because they can never be repeated, due to the age of the men involved, and also because of the fact that, after decades of reluctance to talk about the horrors they experienced, there seemed at last to be a compelling urge to let people know about the unbelievable scenes they witnessed.
The media in Ireland centred on the dedication of the Irish Round Tower at Messines by the Queen and the Irish President. This was not only symbolism in itself, but a long-deferred recognition of the part played in the battles of France and Belgium by Irishmen south of the border - men who returned at the end of the war to a bewildering rejection in a changed political climate.
At the end of June 1998 I had the great privilege of travelling to France and Belgium with the Somme Association, The organisation was excellent and one of the main objectives was to let individual members of the party visit graves that were particularly dear to their family. You can imagine that this required much co-ordination and a lot of travelling to remote places. In a party of fifty or so, visits to many cemeteries in the course of a few days presented the risk of boredom and a reluctance to visit yet another cemetery. It was not so.
Every cemetery was different; some with thousands of graves, others with only a few headstones. All were immaculately tended, even in the remotest places. Every member of the party assisted in the location of each grave as though it were of a member of their own family.
Of perhaps 3,000 cemeteries scattered across the landscape of two countries, why are some so vast and some so tiny? Why are some so remote? The larger cemeteries are explained by the great battles. The smaller ones are perhaps the history of a surprise attack, a field hospital, a long-forgotten ambush.
Looking at the intensively-farmed land of today, you cannot even imagine the devastation of the countryside pictured in the reminiscences of the survivors. Yet a small sign on the roadside can point you along a narrow well-kept field path between cultivated crops until you are suddenly surprised by beautiful lawns and flowers, and the clean perfection of row upon row of headstones, part of an army of twenty-year-old soldiers frozen in time. In each place the overwhelming emotion is one of tranquillity and peace. It is as if the land is still shocked at the enormity of the loss of a generation. And the poppies still grow wild along the paths and roadside ditches, and the larks sing in the stillness.
These famous and deeply moving lines first appeared in Punch during the First World war, and everybody who knows English should know them. They were written by a Canadian who was on the battlefields, John McCrae. He served in the trenches and died as a colonel in France, writing this poem as the wounded came in when the Germans were threatening Paris.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard among the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow.
The well-known battles are now marked with striking memorials, On the soaring Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge are carved the names of 11,285 Canadians who were killed in France and whose final resting place is unknown. The Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium, where the last post has been sounded every night at 8 pm since the end of the war in 1918, commemorates another 54,895 men who died in the Battle of Ypres, and have no known grave.
For the people of Ireland, mention of the Somme still causes a curious reserved reverence which seems to have been built into the fabric of family history over the years. The mighty memorial at Thiepval, 150 feet high and visible for many miles, carries the names of 73,000 men who have no known grave. The structure is the largest British War Memorial in the world. On a first of July morning with the sun shining on the immaculate lawns, the massed bands, the thousands of spectators, and the ranks of veterans, it is indeed a moving place to be.
Yet even with so many people the lasting impression is of the absolute silence at 11 o'clock, a silence you can almost hear, following on from the shimmering notes of the Last Post.
Not far away is the Ulster Tower, a replica of Helen's Tower on the Clandeboye Estate in County Down, and on the spot where men from Ulster walked and then charged on 1 st July 1916, from the forward edge of Thiepval Wood to the crest of the ridge and beyond, to overwhelm many lines of German trenches.
The Ulstermen had breached the strongest German defences on the Western Front, had taken all their objectives and held on to them for a day and a half; yet their success was not exploited by the British Generals. Two days after the assault began the lines finished virtually where they had started, but at a cost of 5,553 officers and men.
In the grounds of the Ulster Tower is a memorial stone to the nine V.C.s won by Ulstermen, including the names of Lt. Geoffrey St. G. Shillington Cather, Robert Quigg, Captain Eric N.F. Bell, William McFadzean, and Thomas Hughes, all won at the Battle of the Somme.
The 16th (Irish) Division raised in Ireland at the beginning of the war included five Ulster Battalions from the Royal Inniskilllng Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles, and the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The Division also included 600 men of the Connaught Rangers, largely recruited in Belfast. In the village of Guillemont stands an Irish Celtic Cross, marking the honoured place the Division played in September 1916 In capturing this fortified village with severe losses.
In June 1917 the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division joined forces and distinguished themselves together in the successful Battle of Messines. A Celtic Cross in the village marks this engagement, and has now been followed in 1998 by the erection outside the village of the Irish Round Tower of Peace. The 16th (Irish) Division losses were 748 men killed and wounded, and the 36th (Ulster) Division had 700 men killed and wounded.
At Wytschaete Cemetery stands a simple Celtic Cross with the words:
Lo the Glory of God and the honour of Ireland
Dochum Gloire De agus Onora no hEireann
It was in this battle that Major Willie Redmond, M.P. for Waterford and a Home Ruler, was killed. By a strange coincidence he was picked up where he had fallen by stretcher- bearers of the 36th (Ulster) Division. Father Kelly, Chaplain to 49 Brigade, wrote in a letter: "He received every possible kindness from the Ulster soldiers. An Englishman attached to the 36th expressed some surprise at the extreme care which was taken of the Major, though no Irish soldier expected anything else, for after all Ulstermen are Irishmen too"
These are snapshots in a vast panorama of tragedy and heroism across two countries. In nearly all of the larger cemeteries there are found groups of headstones where the regulation spacing has been abandoned, and maybe five or ten or even more headstones have been placed tightly touching. The dates are all the same. A group of comrades killed by the same shell, the same machine gun, the same skirmish. They fought together, they died together, and they rest forever together.
My journey followed an interval of 64 years since the last visit by a family member. The visit in 1934 had been preceded by two other visits, in 1923 and 1930. Perhaps this was the pattern followed by many families, as generations passed on. Photographs of the cemeteries in the 1920s still showed the desolation of war, and only wooden crosses marked the graves. Many of the visits in the 1920s and 1930s were arranged through the Salvation Army who had set up a remarkable organisation of hotels and staff who met visitors and traced graves.
What were my impressions? Sadness, at the unbelievable suffering and carnage men must have come through in those horrendous years. No wonder they kept silent for so long. Amazement, at the standard of care with which cemeteries are kept, and the very visible signs of patriotism and gratitude still evident among the French and Belgium people for the sacrifices which were made by the British forces in 1914 - 1918. The peace and silence of these remote places where time has stood still. A sense that this war must continue to be remembered by generations still to come as a remarkable memorial to the courage of men who were boys for nothing more than a few years.
For references to Messines to "Orange Green and Khaki - The story of the Irish Regiments in the Great War 1914-1918" by Tom Johnstone
For line drawings to Shadows Cast by I.C. Pearson and D. Pearson.