Thursday, 24 July 2014

He is not missing...

I'm writing a book on the first war. (Who isn't... or hasn't?) But - and it's a big but - mine is about the aftermath, the immediate aftermath, when France and Belgium were slowly rebuilding and first the Army followed by the (then) Imperial War Graves Commission were burying and reburying thousands and thousands of bodies and slowly creating the vast memorial cemeteries that are now such a universal symbol of the human cost of war.

My protagonists - a group of soldiers eager for demob but kept on in Flanders after the Armistice - form one of the many companies whose unenviable task it was to search the shattered land for the missing, to exhume hasty battlefield burials and then to establish the now famous concentration cemeteries like the largest of them all, Tyne Cot.

It was a grim task. But many such men volunteered for the work (and not merely for the extra 2/6 a day). Some even remained in Belgium after demob and found work as IWGC gardeners. A sizeable British  community in Ypres between the wars had its own school and church and remained there until the Germans once again invaded in 1939. Then came a hastily arranged and hazardous evacuation.

In the meantime, the monuments to the missing had been built. Massive structures like Thiepval, the memorial wall at Tyne Cot and, of course, the famous Menin Gate which was inaugurated by Field-Marshal Sir Herbert Plumer ('Daddy' Plum, one of the few high-ranking officers to have escaped the 'donkey' epithet and to have been universally respected by the troops) on this day, July 24th, 1927.

In one chapter of the book I'm writing the men - by now ex-army IWGC gardeners and labourers - gather at the Menin Gate for the ceremony (as actually happened - medals, but not uniforms, were worn). They listen as Plumer delivers his speech:

One of the most tragic features of the Great War was the number of casualties reported as 'Missing, believed killed'... It was resolved that here at Ypres, where so many of the 'Missing' are known to have fallen, there should be erected a memorial worthy of them which should give expression to the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice and its sympathy with those who mourned them. 

At home in England, at the same time on that July Sunday morning, congregations gather in churches up and down the land to listen to one of the very first BBC outside broadcasts - a live relay from Ypres - and, perhaps, to follow the service in the specially-printed feature in the Radio Times.


You're not, perhaps, meant to be moved by your own words. (Although Dickens cried at the death of Little Nell.) But I find even my own modest description of that event, culminating as it did with the playing by buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry of the Last Post (the start of a tradition that continues, famously, to this day) followed by pipers of the Scots Guards playing the Flowers of the Forest lament as the men who fought there remember their comrades who died and are commemorated on those walls quite unusually affecting.

But then, that's down to the event itself, the memorial, and the men it commemorates. Just to see the 'intolerably nameless names' - almost 55,000 - filling the walls and arches of Reginald Blomfield's great edifice is moving enough.

It takes but a little imagination to appreciate the impact it must have had on those present that day, those for whom the countless names were living people, comrades, friends and of whom, at last, in the words of Herbert Plumer, the world could now say:

He is not missing; he is here. 

***

You can read an extended extract from the beginning of this book on the Authonomy website.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...