Tuesday, 11 November 2008

We will remember them...

Cpl William Foster Johnson, MM, is buried at Etaples military cemetery, having died of wounds just months before the end of World War One. There can't be many families in the UK without a story of their own to tell about the Great War; W.F.Johnson - or 'Uncle' Will as he is always called - is ours. Mentioned in dispatches and decorated for having single-handedly disarmed a German machine-gun emplacement, he was wounded in early summer 1918 and died at the casualty clearing station at Etaples on the French coast, where he is buried. Until my parents bought a house in France some years ago, no-one in the family (as far as we could tell) had ever visited his grave. That's been put right now, thank goodness. And a couple of years ago we stopped on our way back home and Sally paid her own tribute to a distant, but not-forgotten relative.

Like all military cemeteries, Etaples is stunning both in its scale and manicured tranquility. Only one thing leaves a slightly bitter taste: as you survey the serried ranks of fallen soldiers it suddenly hits you that they're in parade ground order. The officers (with their slightly larger plots) are all together at the top, nearest the entrance; the other ranks then fan out into the far distance. It's a small point, maybe. But to be not equal in death seems so unnecessary, as well as typically British. As a footnote to this post, my mother still has - framed - the many delicate, embroidered post-cards Will sent from the Western Front. Wonderful, delicate creations bearing such legends as 'Towards Victory' and 'Onwards to Glory'. That such fragile, hand-made items should have come from the Gehenna he was in is something of a miracle.


  1. I have a similar picture of Laura at the grave of Philip (from my blog). Although only 4 she seemed to understand at least the sadness of the situation and found some flowers to leave behind. I was the first of his direct family to visit.

    BTW, is that a West Yorks Regiment badge I recognise?

  2. Nice post. Tis good to remember things like this in our families :)

  3. It is always moving visiting huge cemeteries like this; equally emotive is reading a WW1 war memorial in a tiny English village: sometimes a single family losing six or seven menfolk.

    Lest we forget indeed.

  4. great post. thoughtful and inspiring.

  5. Thanks for reminding us to remember, I have a hard time doing that these days.

    Also -- inviting you to do some guest/cross posts at londonmumsblog.com -- our audience is mainly mums, but we'd love a dad's point of view. Email me at londonmumsblog@gmail.com

  6. Very observant, Lizzie. As a native of Monk Fryston he enlisted into his local regiment.

    You're right, TG, and I just hope it will always be so. It's too important to be forgotten.

    There are villages here in Lincolnshire where almost all the young men died, DD. The roll of honour on Remembrance Sunday just goes on and on. Equally there are some - Bigby is one I know of - where all the young men returned home safely.

    Thanks, google-mummy. And thanks, Susanna, for the invite. I'll be in touch.

  7. A moving post. They were very brave men. I had not realised that the graves were in order of rank.

  8. Lovely, lovely tribute.

    Let us not forget.

  9. My father took his father to visit the graves of the Somme victims with whom he had served in WW1 - the trip had the added side-effect of bringing them together after decades of totally failing to understand one another.

    Strewth, I hadn't realised either that the graves were in order of rank - that explains why my grandfather was a lifelong socialist!

  10. What a lovely post. Thanks for that. I have a grandfather who died as a POW in a Japanese war camp... I am so proud of him. His grave is out in Thailand, quite a journey up a river and then by foot. The graves are immaculately kept. My mother and father went out there,once my mother could bear to go, (he was her father). There was a man there, old as the hills who tended the graves and knew just where my grandfather's grave was, without looking it up.
    Makes me cry.
    We must remember them. To die is huge enough. To die as a soldier is
    courage indeed.
    Thanks again!

  11. sorry, late again.

    What a very moving post

    JS xxx

  12. So very sad!

    We will always remember.

  13. Neither had I, CW. In fact, I'm not sure that they are in all cemeteries. Hope not, anyway.

    Thanks, Willow. I hope we never will.

    Interesting, Gadj - male bonding of a completely different character.

    What a lovely, personal touch LBM - someone tending the graves who knows each one personally. They are all incredibly well cared-for (in an era, in Europe at least, when public spaces are often neglected).

    Many thanks, JS. (And you're hardly late, you know!)

  14. I hope it's not too ireverant of me to put this comment on a serious post but the add at the top of this post made me laugh as it goes so well with the photograph! This is what it said today:
    - Treat her to whiter teeth Ideal Christmas gift, up to 50% off-

    As white and as straight as the gravestones!!

  15. Oh no, Suburbia. Those bloody Blogger adverts!

  16. Another great place to visit that will give you pause for thought is the arch at Ypres. It's vast - and covered in the names of those soldiers who's bodies were never found. When my boys are old enough to understand what that means, it's definitely on our list.

    And btw - saw your comment on Alpha Mum. If you want to get involved in the next carnival just send a link to pottymummy@gmail.com (check my blog for details).

  17. A good post - thank you. I spent 7 years living in the UK and each year I wanted to visit the graves in France, and didn't manage to. It's still on my list of things to do when I'm next living over there, or, if that doesn't happen, when I'm able to travel more freely about.

    My great grandfather left South Africa to fight in WWI, and made it through the war, only to die of the influenza in 1918, just months before his first, and only, child was born, my grandmother. In WWII her husband was imprisoned after Alamein, and missing, presumed dead, for 4 years. The sacrifice being made today by servicemen and women, and their families, is just as great.

    Here in Kwazulu-Natal (South Africa) the Midlands are dotted with little war cemeteries, from the Anglo-Zulu Wars through to the second Boer War. The condition of them is often shocking, headstones falling over or no longer legible. Some, like the memorials at Spionkop and, I believe, Isandhlwana, are maintained by the British War Graves Commission, and it's incredibly moving to visit - the graves aren't individual as they just covered up the bodies where they lay, in great barrows, and then placed a memorial, bearing names, somewhere along its length. I'll post some photos on my blog soon. It's vitally important to remember.

  18. Fascinating, Jeannie. Thanks for that. We in Britain can sometimes forget the other conflicts we've been involved in, historically (and not always justifiably!). I had no idea about the war graves on S.Africa.

    I agree wholeheartedly about Ypres, PM. The sheer scale of the Menin Gate, and the enormous list of names, is moving in itself.

  19. I often take solace when i visit the Australian War Memorial in Canberra here. Those walls with those lists of names... oh my...

    And yes... practically every village and country town in Australia has a War Memorial statue or plaque somewhere. Just part of the Aussie psyche.

    Mal :)

  20. Great post. My son visited the Normandy beaches on a school trip and came back with a real sense of how terrible it must all have been. And most were just four or five years older than him...

  21. Remembrance day always brings tears to my eyes...

  22. The faces of the last survivors Henry Allingham and Harry Patch are so moving too, aren't they?

  23. Thanks. We've just observed the 2 minutes silence and I swear it felt more powerful this year than ever before.

    We need to remember x


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