Cemetery reflections at St Symphorien
Yesterday I made a flying visit to the First World War cemetery at St Symphorien, near Mons in Belgium. I've had a bit of experience with war graves, particularly in Crete. When we went there on holiday when the kids were young, we used quite often to visit both the allied and the German cemeteries.
There were some good and wholesome family activites to be had. I remember getting the kids to find the graves of the archaeologists, or the different commonwealth nationalities, at Suda Bay, and making them reflect on the different aesthetic styles of commemoration -- and of course on the sheer scale of the human slaughter on both sides which the rows of headstones brought out better than any figure in a book. And the truth is that these cemeteries were always beautifully cool and watered when it was very hot in the Cretan summer. It was impossible not to admire what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and their German equivalent the VDK, did to make these places so beautiful and so affecting... and so wonderfully un-jingoistic. There was no lack of welcome, I remember, for a family of Brits at the German graves.
That said, I am of course far to old to have done what seems to be now the regular school visit to the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders (though both my kids did .. coming back rather moved by Thiepval and frankly thrilled-and-scared by all the tales of unexploded ordnance still lying around the Flanders fields. So it was great to get a chance to have a good visit to one of the WW1 cemeteries in Belgium. I have, you see, just joined the Government's First World War Centenary Commemoration Advisory Group,
and St Symphorien is where one of the commemorative events will be held this summer. This visit was by way of a reccy for that event.
It is an extraordinarily beautiful place -- and very special because it holds roughly equal numbers of casualties on both sides. In fact it was originally established by the Germans for the British and Commonwealth soldiers, as well as their own (that's a German headstone on the left), who died at the battle of Mons in the first year of the war.
It's quite hard to capture the site if you've not been there, because it is arranged in small areas (for different nationalities, even different regiments) and surrounded by trees. The land was given by a local landowner (keen on horticulture -- hence in part the expert landscaping), and his donation is still commemorated, in the neutral language of Latin, close to the entrance (above); and it's now beautifully tended by the War Graves Commission, and their local staff.
Apart from the loveliness of the place, it makes a particularly appropriate spot for a commemoration, because it has the graves (just a few yards from one another) of the first British soldier -- Private John Parr -- to die in action and probably the last one to die before the armistice (not the last to die in the war itself; there were plenty of deaths after the armistice of course).
Like all such places it's an extraordinary stimulus to reflections, doubts, conumdrums and questions. You look at the words at the bottom of the headstone, that the families of the soldiers were allowed to choose themselves, and you cant help wonder what lay behind their choice. One just says "kismet" ("fate") -- one has the famous phrase "dulce et decorum est.." (now so mired in irony, but was it then for those choosing their commemorative lines?)
These things, of course, raise the issue of the fading individuality of these men. There is noone alive now who could possibly actually remember any one of them personally (well ok, to be strictly accurate... if they were 107 or so, maybe they could, but I dont think it's likely ). There is an inevitable tendency to think of them all together as "the brave and tragic fallen". But as those brief personal mottoes hint, one of the terrible over-simplifications of history is to merge them into a single category like that. Some would have been brave.. but some wouldn't. Some would have thought they were fighting a valiant fight. Some would have been not so sure. Some would have been good men and true, but petty criminals and drunks fell too (and yes, of course, we want to remember them, but does that retrospective sanctification come at a cost?)
And then there is the fact that they are all men. I found myself conflicted on this one too. Part of me was asking, in a pretty obvious way, where are the women? Where are the nurses and those slaving on the home front? Some of them died too, if not in ways so obvious to commemorate. (Actually I'd taken Deborah Thom's excellent Nice Girls and Rude Girls: women workers in World war 1 to read on the train, so I'd already been thinking about this). But another part of me felt a bit uneasy about that slightly knee-jerk reaction. What the cemetery so vividly (and poignantly) demonstrated was that these victims were young men. Maybe, I wondered on the way home, we have take head on the fact that is was a generation of men, not women, who were nearly wiped out.
To be honest, I just dont know. But I think that the commemorations coming up this summer and over the next four years will do their job very well if they give us all some space to have such doubts and questions.