Monday, June 21, 2010

In Memory, From A Distant War . . .

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Monday a week ago, I set out at long last to fulfil a request for photographs made quite some time ago by a friend of a friend in the US, who had informed me that he had a great uncle who had died in France during World War One from and illness contracted there, and as he was in the Canadian Army at the time, he was buried in a Commonwealth War Cemetery near the town of Etaples. I had said I might be able to go look for the grave, and had received the name of the great uncle in question, Horace McLaughlin, and a reference as to the location of the grave in the cemetery, LXVIII F68.
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It was a good thing he had been able to provide the reference information, because the cemetery in question turned out to be the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in France, with over 12000 graves. Etaples is on the northern coast of France, across the English Channel from Hastings, adjacent to the town of le Touquet Paris Plage.
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The location of the Horace McLaughlin's grave is marked by the red dot here, the numerous rows of faint white lines are gravestones. The bright white structure at right center is the memorial near the entrance to the cemetery :
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The entrance just off the road . . .
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Just to the left of the entrance off the road is this engraving. Can you spot an error in the roman numerals here, knowing the cemetery was used both in WWI and WWII ?
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The grave I was looking for is in the upper right here . . .
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A sign near the entrance . . .
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The grounds were carefully manicured by a team of groundskeepers . . .
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The water of the Touquet inlet is visible just beyond the trees at the edge of the cemetery . . .
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The grave I was looking for, may he rest in peace . . .
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It seemed as though the stones went on forever . . .
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From an earlier war than the one featured in Steven Spielberg's film, another Private Ryan, who could not be saved . . .
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A red rose for the King's Own . . .
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42 comments:

the fly in the web said...

I am not sure if this is the same cemetery I visited many years ago..in memory it was smaller.
But I was - not shocked, because that was the way of thought of the time - but distressed, to find that chinese labourers and african soldiers had been buried together, apart from the rest of the 'European' graves in a cemetery serving a base hospital.

And as for the hypocrisy of 'their name liveth for evermore'....yes, for their families, but not for the politicians who still persist in sending people to their deaths for no good reason.

Sorry to be sour, Owen....the photography is wonderful...perhaps it is the realism of it that brings the futility of these deaths to the forefront of my mind.

Steve said...

Weird to think that this war is coming up for being a hundred years old. No longer in living history for my kids though it felt like it was for me when I was a kid... thank God places like means it will never be forgotten.

jeff said...

"Faut-il oublier le passé pour se donner un avenir ?"

Sujet du bac philo 2010

Alistair said...

Lovely photo's here Owen, which do justice to the work and reverence of the caretakers and others responsible for these sights. A mirror to my pot on my recent visit to Tyne Cot in Belgium which is a similar size. {Thank you for the nice comment on that post by the way}

regards.....Al.

Peter said...

Wonderful that you made the trip and the post! Terrifying to see, but needed for them and for us (and our kids...) to remember.

(Yes the Roman numerals indicate 1915-19, which obviously is a year late.)

mythopolis said...

Well, this is all so powerful and moving, I do not know what to say. It seems a picture of a sensitivity of yours, to be on this quest, and, then too, there is this overlay of how tragic war is. One of the best posts I have read/viewed in a long time.

Nevine said...

Owen, I held my breath as I scrolled over each of these beautiful photos. You know about me and cemeteries. You also know about me and your photos... I am a huge fan! You bring out the beauty and sublimeness and holiness in such a sad place. And I am left with a feeling of peace...

And can I say thank you for your visits while I was away? I needed the time, as you know. And now, I have taken my toast and tea. :-) I didn't realize you were such a huge Eliot fan. Is that where you got the name for your blog, from "Prufrock". I wonder... He kept me company, that Eliot, oh yes he did. Such a master of words and emotions. I don't feel like such a weirdo anymore to have as my favorite poet such a sad writer. But really, I can't thank you enough, Owen. I peeked in to my blog every once in a while to make sure everything was well, and when I saw your comments and those of others, I smiled. So thank you for that... and for you.

Nevine

Clytie said...

Wow. A very moving post. It does weird things to my mind to think that for each of those stones in that huge place (and so many others like it) there is a story ... a life ... a friend of a friend to locate a trace of a family ... So much loss. I bow my head for a moment of personal silence before I continue.

Thank you for this.

Stickup Artist said...

Wasn't that just like you to go and look up the Great Uncle of the friend of a friend! How sweet. I'm sure it was so well appreciated! You did a lovely job photographing the place both in depth and breadth. I especially admired the gravestone with the large orange poppies in the foreground and the markers receding back into what seems like infinity. Beautiful post.

TechnoBabe said...

This was a very nice thing you did, Owen. And thanks for sharing it with us in your blog. The photos show it all so clearly and the grounds are maintained so well.

Amy said...

What a moving post, that was a very kind thing for you to do.

The gravestones sadly seem to stretch on forever. Those quiet rows speak volumes. The way you've provided different angles show the immensity of it as well as the more intimate/personal side. I like to think of cemeteries headstone by headstone as the big picture, especially in places like this, is a bit unsettling.

Nadege said...

Owen, I wrote you an email but it wouldn't let me send it. Thank you for alerting me that my profile is not public. I don't know how it happened and hope I corrected it.
This is another post that brought tears to my eyes. So touching!

French Fancy said...

You have done a great thing for your friend here - that is the true meaning of friendship - going that little bit further than the cards and emails - something that really mattered to a person.

War cemeteries are always so striking - I suppose it is the sheer number of similar stones that make us realise anew just how many lost their lives. Numbers on a page just don't do it.

French Fancy said...

p.s.s - just re-read it and it turned out to be a friend of a friend - that is even lovelier for the friend that you both have in common.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I for one am so glad that I have never had to fight in any war and certainly feel fortunate not to have seen the slaughter of men in WW1. The sacrifice of those young men and women should indeed be remembered but sadly, what we seem to forget is the folly of men that led us to these wars and that the war to end all wars has not in fact done that at all.

Owen said...

Hello to All,
I will be back here soon to respond individually, but have to return to work today after two weeks off... so time will be shorter. But I just wanted to say, I can't tell you how overwhelmed I am by your kindness, warmth, and humanity in all of your messages. From the bottom of my toad heart, thank you...

Dee Newman said...

Owen,

Your exquisite photos and words reveal who you are . . . a remarkable and compassionate human being.

Every time I visit a war cemetery in person or through the eye and the camera lens of others, I am reminded of Mark Twain's "The War Payer." Back in April I posted the payer along with a verse I wrote to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his death.

Thanks for sharing your perspective.

K'line Bloom said...

Difficile de laisser quelques mots...
Une pensée particulière pour les médecins et infirmières.
Des vies éphémères, comme les coquelicots...

Roxana said...

i agree with K'line, i only feel like bowing my head in silence.
(but also, so much rage against the idiocy of human race, wars upon wars, death and destruction, for what)

and you should really think about making a book about all this, you know? you have such interesting stuff, so much of it, already.

Owen said...

Dear Fly in Web,
I can only nod my head...

The hypocrisy goes on and on.

Perhaps one who summed things up rather well was Jackson Browne in his song "Lives in the Balance" where he sings :

"They sell us the President the same way
They sell us our clothes and our cars
They sell us everything from youth to religion
The same time they sell us our wars
I want to know who the men in the shadows are
I want to hear somebody asking them why
They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are
But they're never the ones to fight or to die
And there are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire"
-----------------------------

The human race, especially the politicians, the power mongers, the arms dealers... just don't seem to get it... and so it continues.

Another who wrote eloquently about the idiocy of wars was Robert William Service, in poems like :

The Munitions Makers
The March of the Dead
The Man From Athabaska

Also, as you mentioned, I have also noticed separate areas in some cemeteries for soldiers from North Africa, at Verdun, for example, but I sort of thought it was out of respect for the different religious beliefs involved ? I didn't get the impression it was done out of prejudice...

Owen said...

Steve,
I think we must hope that this war, and other past wars, will not be forgotten, that we may learn from them.

Although, given the rate at which wars continue today, I wonder if such hope is possible ? As a race, as a species, we seem almost addicted to the violence and barbarity of wars...

Owen said...

Jeff,
Sans rentrer dans une réponse qui pourrait durer des heures, je pense qu'une réponse courte possible serait... il vaut mieux que nous nous souvenons du passé, et toutes les bétises du passé, afin justement de créer un avenir avec moins de bétises du même genre...

Si oui ou non nous sommes capables, en tant qu'espèce, ça c'est une autre question...

Bonne soirée à toi

Owen said...

Alistair,
You are very welcome, your story about visiting sites around Ypres was very moving. And indeed, the caretakers of these places deserve to be recognized, they do an incredible job. While I was there a team of people were cleaning individual stones to restore them to gleaming white... one of those jobs that will take months and months... Many thanks...

Owen said...

Hi Peter,
Indeed, important that our children remember...

For the WWI dates, they look ok, and normal I think that they run from 1915 to 1919, the war in France started in August 1914, the hospitals at Etaples may not have gotten started, and the cemetery, until 1915, and would have run into 1919 after the end of the war at the end of 1918. No, it is the dates in the second line at the bottom where I think there is a mistake, the dates for WWII...

Owen said...

Mythopolis... I've been interested in WWI history and especially visiting sites where the war occurred for quite some time, and yet it still seems incomprehensibly enormous to me. If the French, British, Canadians, and at the end Americans, had not prevailed, France might be speaking German today... The same could be said for WWII. But there are no limits to the depth of tragedy involved.

"When will they ever learn?"

Catherine said...

Moi ce que je remarque c'est la représentation des nationalités sur les pierres tombales.....tellement plus poêtique que de l'évoquer avec des lettres.

Et en parlant de lettres, effectivement, "IXL" pour 39 est une libre, vraiment très libre, transcription, mais je saisis le raisonnment du 40 - 1....Mais bon...un peu fantaisiste. "VL" soit 50-5 pour 45 ! Why not....Je ne sais pas si j'aurais remarqué ces 2 anomalies. Je suppose que d'autres avant nous ont dû en faire la remarque...Et qu'ils l'ont maintenu néanmoins.

Pour m'être rendue sur le cimitère de Colleville, je sais toute l'emotion qui se recueille ici, et ailleurs.

Catherine said...

what a wonderful piece of research - and those photos with the poppies and roses are especially moving...

Owen said...

Nevine...
Ah, but did you talk of Michelangelo, as you took toast and tea ?
:-)

Funny, I don't feel sad reading TS... just complete wonder filled awe at his mastery of our language.

I'm blushing with pleasure, pure pleasure, at your note... the notion of someone being a "fan", is beyond my comprehension, but I am happy for your company out here on the blog trail. And sincerely hope that you and your husband may find yourselves in Paris one day before too long, that we may meet in a backstreet café, and take our time, I shall wear white flannel trousers, and we may dare to eat peaches...

Actually, I don't even own any white flannel trousers, but feel like I should...
:-)

Glad you're back !

Owen said...

Clytie,
Yes, the implications of all those stones, each one a life cut short, a story ended before it had hardly started, are enormous, mind boggling really.

But just bringing one stone back to life, as it were, out of the multitude, somehow brings it all to life for me, a man who lay in a hospital bed with a terrible illness, nurses and doctors fretting over him, trying to find relief, hoping for survival, then the despair of defeat when the pulse slows, then stops... and yet another lost case to cart off to the burying ground. It must have been devastating for the people who worked in such hospitals to have to cope with such poor chances of survival for people with infections of whatever kind... many of whom would survive today with anti-biotics and better means of sterilisation... The tragedy of those days is beyond my comprehension.

Owen said...

Hi Stickup,
As far as I could see, that one grave with the poppies growing on it was the only one in the entire graveyard, I didn't see any others. Many other kinds of flowers, but those were the only bright orange poppies in view. Odd... somebody must have planeted them specially. It was a real pleasure to try to track down that grave so that someone who may not get to France for a long time could see it. I did another such tracing about a year ago for a blog pal in New Zealand, which was somehow a very satisfying... I'd do it again happily...

Owen said...

TechnoB., a real pleasure to be able to do this sort of thing, I hope I still have a few more years left to continue lifting the corners of the rugs to see what was swept under them...
:-)

Owen said...

Amy,
I'm with you... it is one stone focused on at a time, one story remembered, which bring it all into some sort of resonating focus. Even after finding what I was looking for I spent another very long moment slowly walking up and down row after row, taking in names, ranks, countries... one whole section was for higher ranking officers, no one was spared, entire armies were decimated there. And for what ?

Owen said...

Nadege,
Ah, I see your profile is public again, and now I remember, it is the blog that says, "Not Yet"... maybe someday ?
Thanks...

Owen said...

Dear FF,
For a friend, or a friend of a friend, it was a privilege to be able to go searching, and the entire day I had the very real sense of doing something quite worthwhile, profoundly so... if I could make a living doing such reporting, I would do so gladly...

Owen said...

LGS,
We are indeed fortunate to not have to have fought in such circumstances. I just can't imagine the terror of being in the middle of a heavy artillery bombardment. It was in this war that the medical community first started to study the phenomenon of "shell shock"...

And yet we continue, as a species, to wage war after war.

What will it take to end the madness ?

Owen said...

Dee,
Thanks so much for reminding us of Mark Twain's brilliant piece of writing, The War Prayer. In case anyone may not be familiar with it, please just Google the name and title, it can be found. The most painful part of the "prayer" is this :

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(*After a pause.*) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!"

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said."

Owen said...

K'line,
En effet, pas evident à trouver des mots devant ce vaste désert de tragédie...

Merci tout simplement de ta présence, ici, le passage d'une fée verte... qui chauffe le coeur...

Owen said...

Ah Roxana,
Then let us bow our heads together, for a moment of silence...

I would love to create a book of some of these tales; but so far the publishers are not yet beating down my door. Maybe someday someone will come knocking... until then, one can just continue, continue believing in a faint spark of hope...
:-)

Owen said...

Bonjour Catherine,
Que des émotions dans ces endroits...

En fait, je pense pour les dates romaines de la deuxième guerre, qu'avec le MCMIXL, qu'ils voulaient dire 1941, avec le IXL peut-être voulant dire 50 - 9, mais pour 1941 cela aurait dû être MCMXLI. 1939 aurait été MCMXXXIX je crois... En tout cas, quand je rentre MCMIXL dans un convertisseur de chiffres romains sur internet, il ne comprend pas, et me sort 1909, comme s'il prenait en compte le MCMIX, main ne comprenait pas le L à la fin. Bref, c'est un détail sans importance, pas en comparaison avec la taille de la tragedie ici...

Owen said...

Catherine II, Many thanks... it was all in all a wonderful day, providing much food for thought...

pRiyA said...

This post reminded me of that one visit to Germany over a decade ago. I was driving through the countryside and there were mounds and mounds of white gravestones, which as you have mentioned 'seem to go on forever'. But each one was a person, an individual, as you have reminded us in this post...

Peter said...

You are right, it should be ...LV!