Magazine article The Spectator

France/Belgium - Gardens of Stone

Magazine article The Spectator

France/Belgium - Gardens of Stone

Article excerpt

Jeremy Clarke wishes his son had joined him on a tour of the Great War cemeteries

My boy Mark. What a prannet.

Months ago he agreed to come on a Holt's tour of the battlefields and cemeteries of the first world war.

The tour was a four-day introduction to the subject, called 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary'. His great-grandfather fought at the battle of the Somme and his great grandmother's brother was killed at Ypres. I was very excited at the prospect of touring Delville Wood, Sanctuary Wood, High Wood, Hill 60, the Sunken Road, Tyne Cot, the Menin Gate and Thiepval with my boy. For what else can a father do for his son other than show him a few reasons to feel proud of his country?

But I had no word or news of him for several weeks, and on departure day the great pillock failed to turn up or get in touch.

Going dejectedly alone to the first world war battlefields, then, what comfort did I find? Well, for one thing those war cemeteries and memorials run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in northern France and Belgium must be one of the wonders of the world. Though not exactly an impartial observer, Kipling thought so. He called them 'the biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaohs'. Yet the scale of the losses that these memorials commemorate, and the mindset of the nation they died for, seem beyond reach of the ordinary 21st-century imagination - or mine, at any rate. I looked at the rows of identical, surprisingly modernist, surprisingly democratic, largely secular, white Portland headstones.

I read the terse inscriptions, incised in a spare Roman alphabet designed by Macdonald Gill, brother of Eric.

5750 Rifleman V.J. Strudwick The Rifle Brigade, 14th January 1916 Age 15 Not gone from memory Or from love I tried to imagine, to empathise, to emote even. But by and large I failed to get anywhere near them.

The cemeteries are immaculate and, when the shrubs are well-chosen and in bloom, often very beautiful. No two cemeteries are the same.

Each has its own tale to tell. Some are built over hastily filled-in shell craters, others over the burial ground of a casualty clearing station. Is it your constant refrain that the world has gone to pot? Then you must go. Go to the old trench line in Belgium and France and relish the perfectionism and respect and the great good taste still shown by the gardeners in the cemeteries and memorials there. Do you go around spluttering, 'Is nothing sacred any more? …

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