Tuesday, 19 August 2008

War memorials

One of my interests is military history, and I think it would be fair to say that one of the defining moments of my life was nearly 30 years ago when I first travelled to France. Not for the reasons that one might expect (food, wine, more food) but because of the way that every time we detoured off the Autoroutes, we seemed to come across a small Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. It brought home to me the enormity of the cost of the two World Wars and their effect on successive generations.

My wife and I went to France and Belgium last year specifically to go on a tour of WWI battlefields, including Ypres and the Somme. My maternal grandfather fought, and was seriously wounded on the the Somme, and carried the effects of being hit by a trench mortar round to the day he died in the late 1970s. Like most veterans, he didn't like to talk about it, and to be honest, at the time I wasn't much interested. Of course, now it's too late. I have managed to find out that he was almost certainly in the Rifle Brigade, and I believe stationed near Beaumont Hamel when he was wounded.

What appals is the scale of the killing, and the senselessness. A few weeks ago, while working in Staffordshire for a client, I had some free time and visited Cannock Chase. I was amazed and disturbed to find two large war cemeteries in the Chase, one Commonwealth, one German, Apparently, virtually the whole of the Chase was a military training area, particularly during the Great War, but also for the RAF up until the 1950s. Most of the graves in the Commonwealth cemetery are of soldiers of both sides who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. I was particularly disturbed to find numerous New Zealanders, who had come to fight for the "mother country" of the Empire, only to die from a virus.

The German cemetery is a different proposition. It is a small piece of Germany in England, with around 5,000 burials. All the Germans who died on British soil, during or after both World Wars whether of wounds, or disease or whatever were "concentrated" here. The cemetery is huge, but, unusually, there are relatively few "unknowns". It is a very peaceful, and very moving, place, set amidst very English woodland.

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