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Known only unto God

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BerichtGeplaatst: 17 Nov 2006 22:00    Onderwerp: Known only unto God Reageer met quote

Known only unto God

Known only unto God

Published on 10/11/2006

IN a tribute to the Fallen, particularly those who lie in unmarked graves, John Bailey, owner of Workington’s Derwent Bookshop, passes on the family baton and goes on a pilgrimage of remembrance to the war graves and memorials of Flanders to see where his ancestors fought - and where so many ‘died like cattle’

MY GRANDFATHER was left for dead at Passchendaele.

But Herbert Bailey survived his wounds and took his 15-year-old son to the First World War battle site in 1936; a trip my father repeated with me 60 years later, shortly before he died. It was now my turn to pass the baton on.

My nephew Paul, now 15, his father Stephen and myself departed for the Belgium town of Bruges, from where we would foray into the fields of contemporary Flanders. The Grand Hotel du Sablon lost its records during the German occupation of 1939 to 1945 otherwise we would have seen all four generations in the register.

The following day we would repeat the visit, first made by my grandfather and father, to the site of the Third Battle for Ypres, now marked by the cemetery at Tyne Cot.

Late August and the end of summer saw the weather playing cat and mouse, a warm sun and a clear light being chased through the day by spiteful squalls of rain showers. We took refuge during a downpour in the Ypres Museum in the grandiose Cloth Hall that dominates the town, just as it did in 1914.

And just as it did in 1918 when every other building had been reduced by the German bombardment to little more than rubble, barely a wall above knee height.

The photographs inside the hall show in graphic detail the material destruction of Ypres, the skeletal tower of the Cloth Hall presaging the solitary dome at Hiroshima and the twisted remains of the World Trade Centre.

We were in the same place; the same town, the very same building that witnessed the terrible destruction of 90 years ago. Time collapsed like the shutting of a telescope.

We took advantage of a sunny interlude and walked across the wet cobbles in the square to the British Memorial at the Menin Gate, a massive arch that straddles the road out of Ypres.

The Menin gate is part of the network of more than 140 cemeteries and memorials that are witness to the human loss.

The prevailing image of mass slaughter in the trenches is one of soldiers stoically walking into machine gun fire. But the biggest mass killer, accounting for two out of three deaths, was artillery bombardment. It is this statistic which explains the existence of the Menin Gate.

A bullet one-third of an inch across travelling at 500 miles an hour may be lethal but generally leaves the victim intact, or at least recognisable. High explosive packed and wrapped with iron and steel and weighing thousands of pounds causes carnage of an entirely different order.

Close proximity to exploding ordnance resulted in instantaneous death, cremation, and burial. Bodies ceased to exist at the moment of death; flesh, organs and bones vapourised and dispersed. This occurred on an industrial scale. Ninety thousand British soldiers were blown to pieces defending Ypres.

The Menin Gate displays 55,000 names of British troops who died fighting but whose remains were unrecoverable and consequently have no marked grave.

Reading the names reminds you who was then considered British and the debt owed to men the world over. There is a corner of some foreign field that is forever Australian, Indian, Scottish, African and South African, Pathan, Jamaican, Welsh, Canadian, Irish - as well as English.

Everywhere I turn, up every flight of steps I discover another panel of names in a seemingly endless list.

Halfway through the gate a number of wreaths have been laid with inscriptions from schools, regiments and individuals.

Hemmed in on all sides by the massed ranks of the dead and missing, confronted by the freshly laid wreaths, with the ink on the inscriptions barely dry, I am stung by nascent tears. With blurred vision I turn in confusion, in empathy and in anger, only to be confronted by yet another roster of Australian dead.

A further 35,000 names of the missing are inscribed on the memorial wall at the cemetery at Tyne Cot, the next station of the crosses on our pilgrimage.

Tyne Cot today is the largest Commonwealth cemetery that in addition to the memorial wall holds 12,000 inscribed graves, many stating simply ‘Known only unto God’.

The afternoon sun skittles the dark clouds and bathes the acres of white crosses, marshalled in impeccable military columns, in a gentle glow.

We had a mission at the Tyne Cot wall.

George Atkinson was a 21-year-old infantryman with The Royal Welch Fusiliers when he was killed at Passchendaele. His fiancée subsequently married his brother, naming their eldest son George.

He in turn became the father of Patricia who has been my partner for the last 25 years. The body never recovered, we were commissioned to photograph his inscription.

Our time and place is ultimately determined by the third dimension of chance.

My grandfather could so easily have joined Private Atkinson on the memorial wall.

Had the bullet that pierced his cheek been one inch higher then his son, grandson and great-grandson could not have made this trip of remembrance.

Likewise, had the shrapnel in his lung reached his heart or had the blast that shattered his lower leg severed the artery in his thigh I could not have written this.

Herbert Bailey was three times lucky, George Atkinson was unlucky just the once. What deflects a bullet an inch in flight? A gust of wind like the cat’s paw that just breezed through the crosses in front of us? It could so easily be an Atkinson looking for a Bailey on the wall.

As the shadows lengthened it was time to leave the tranquillity of Tyne Cot and return to base. Our band of brothers retired to Bruges for the night to plan the campaign for the following day. After the cerebral activity at the museum Paul suggests a more physical, tangible approach.

We opt to clamber through the preserved trenches at Vimy Ridge where the opposing frontlines were less than 25 yards apart.

The next morning we break out of the Ypres Salient and follow the defensive line south into northern France. The Canadian National Memorial stands tall atop the chalk escarpment at Vimy Ridge, an imposing landmark visible for miles around.

We park at the monument and walk the half-kilometre to the trenches.

We are walking between green pastures of grazing sheep and copses of spruce and fir when a cloud obscures the warm dappled sunlight.

Our conversation falters as a chill wind rustles ghostly whispers through the trees. Something is not right. With a shock I realise the land on both sides of the road is a sea of craters, some as much as 20 metres across with steep inescapable sides. This topography is a physical, tangible blast from the past.

The wartime bombardment was so heavy and so prolonged that every square centimetre of soil was whipped up in a violent seascape of overlapping craters.

Crater upon crater and wave upon wave of mud and blood. A turbulent sea now frozen in time by a carpet of grass and locked in place with planted trees.

This perverse pastoral scene stretches as far as the eye can see. Our modern road meanders through this storm-tossed landscape that at the time of the battle continued for 14 kilometres. The capture of Vimy Ridge was a great victory for the Canadians, but won at a cost.

Of the 15,000 Canadian troops involved in the three-day assault, over 3,500 were killed and another 7,000 wounded. The German casualties numbered 20,000. To walk that road today is to march in step with ghosts.

In a clearing in the trees lie the two opposing frontlines, barely a cricket strip apart.

Today, the original contours and dimensions of the trenches are preserved with concrete duckboards and cement sandbags giving an impossibly sanitised impression of what conditions were like.

The proximity of the combatants defies belief, they could have bowled grenades at each other all day and night. The first heavy drops of autumnal rain explode on the cement defences around us so we scurry back to the safety of the car before the deluge.

The Canadian monument stands at the highest point on the ridge. From this vantage point you can clearly see the French National Memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette, visible on the summit of the next ridge. The precise sitings of the French memorial, the Canadian Monument and Tyne Cot on the hill at Passchendaele are a conscious act of remembrance; soldiers died taking these strategic landmarks and they hold them still.

As evening approaches we return to Ypres for our final act of pilgrimage, to hear the Last Post played under the arch of the Menin Gate.

Originally a spontaneous gesture by the citizens of Ypres as a tribute to their fallen liberators, it is now a permanent part of everyday life. The Menin Gate is a British and Commonwealth memorial on foreign soil, the Last Post is the town’s own mark of respect.

We have underestimated the popularity of the ceremony and will struggle to get a view.

Over 250 people are crammed inside the gate leaving the roadway clear for the Buglers and the wreath layers.

There is every conceivable demographic represented under the arches tonight; old, young, families, ex-soldiers, dignitaries and curious tourists.

Immediately in front of me a girl of about twelve fidgets, wearing an expression of nervous boredom.

The road is closed to traffic. The buglers take their positions. My watch nudges eight.

The playing of those two famous drawn-out notes, mournful and melancholic sounds the hour. At the conclusion of the citation the 12-year-old turns around and I see that the tragic magic of the Menin Gate has again brought tears to the eyes.

Time and place again collapse into a singularity; old and young, the quick and the dead connect over a 90-year span.
Met hart en ziel
De enige echte
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