Remembering Passchendaele, a hundred years on.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Anthem for Doomed Youth – Wilfred Owen
One hundred years ago in a small town in Belgium one of the bloodiest and horrific battles began. Three months later and over half a million deaths the battle ended with just six miles gained. Over 50,000 bodies were never found, their names carved on the Menin Gate in Ypres and at Tyne Cott cemetery, my great grandfather’s brother among them. Even the name Passchendaele is surreal.
All in the name of imperialism, men used as cannon fodder to slait the generals every whim. In some small towns, an entire generation of men were wiped out. It’s hard now to comprehend what it must have been like to be part of the hellish scene. Those returning didn’t want to talk about the horrors they saw, perhaps pushing those memories to the back of their minds, although those wounds don’t heal as fast as the flesh ones.
It was a war that should never have happened but millions of young people from all over the world volunteered to fight. English soldiers were joined by those from India, Australia, Canada , New Zealand and others. Accounts can’t do justice to what these young men experienced in the mud caked fields of Flanders, but it forged in the minds of those who went through it. When they came together every November 11th, it wasn’t to celebrate a victory but to remember their friends and family. Tears were shed outwardly and inwardly for those who were lost in the trenches. They called it the war to end all wars, perhaps trying to justify the tremendous loss of life. Sadly it wasn’t and wars are still fought by those in power.
Five years ago I went to Tyne Cott cemetery and the Menin Gate. It’s a humbling experience. Laughing and joking on the coach soon turned solemn and quiet. We wandered around unable to comprehend the sheer numbers of gravestones, of the thousands of names etched forever in stone on the walls. It’s a sobering experience. I found my relatives name, his body never found still in the soil somewhere near. Every night at 8pm the town of Ypres remembers at the Menin Gate. A simple ceremony that is poignant and humbling. It’s carried out by volunteers who feel a debt of honour to those who died. The structure carved with over 50,000 names of those who were never found.
I hope we never see the likes of these again. I wish for peace on this earth, the end to hatred. It may seem fanciful and unattainable, but if we all believe it can happen. For the memories of those who died on those fields we owe a debt to make sure it never happens again. To James, my relative, I’ll raise a glass and remember his life.