Awful Lot of History In Here

This far out in the countryside, all the little towns become more formulaic than an episode of Monk. There will be a main street named Rue De l’Eglise (literally “Street of the Church”), there will be a church on that road, and in front of that church there will be a war memorial to commemorate any from that town who fell in either of the World Wars. 

The rest of the town will be clustered around the church and just off a very few main roads, no one more than a comfortable five-minute stroll from the doors of the church.

And at least the very few that I am familiar with are all equipped with British Cemeteries, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

I went to one today in the next town over.
I’ve only visited two of them, but they are themselves intended to be formulaic. There will be a low rubble wall around the outside. The wall will be at some point inlaid with a metal plaque describing in very broad and concise strokes the war throughout the region.

The ground will be a well manicured grass lawn with an overall (and deliberate) garden feel. The graves are aligned in uniform rows of uniform headstones. The spacing isn’t even though, resulting in headstones being visibly separated into groupings based on a system I haven’t yet figured out (perhaps the particular action in which they were killed?). Most graves are British, a dozen or so will be from other commonwealth countries.

There will be at least three unknown soldiers, and separate stones for those “known to be buried in this cemetery”, but whose graves remain unfound.  There will be a Cross of Sacrifice, which you see pictured with this post (a large latin cross with a broadsword inlaid). There will be a stone bench for visitors. Near the stone bench, a small brass cover laid into a wall will be safeguarding a cemetery register and information about the relevant battles and sometimes a laminated picture of one of the fallen.

It isn’t morbidity that draws me to these cemeteries; I am more interested in the lives of these men than I am in their deaths. I wander up and down the rows (I am always respectful), reading the names, wondering who missed them when they didn’t come home. Did they sign up? Were they drafted? I wonder what they would say if they knew that they would never leave the country to which they were sent. I wonder what they were like, both as men and as children.

In fact, most of the soldiers buried in the cemeteries weren’t much more than children. Most weren’t even as old as I am now. Most of them seem to have been about 19 to 22. I think back to when I was that age, and if I had been sent to war. Would I have made it? Who would have mourned me if I didn’t?

I sit and I read about the fighting. I try to imagine it and fail. Throughout my relatively relaxed and pampered life I’ve never had to endure anything like the atrocities of war. No one has ever tried to kill me, and I’ve never had to kill another. I’ve never fought for my life. These men did – they fought for their lives, and more importantly, they fought for the lives of others.

I wonder who has remembered them, who has come to honor them and celebrate them. By the register, about ten people a year come, mostly from England. In the small one I visited today, a disproportionate number of visits were to honor “Uncle Fred”. Comparing the last names of visitors with the list of the interred, this will be Private Fred Manwaring, of the Manchester Regiment, who fell on June 3rd, 1917. 

I googled Private Manwaring when I got back home. He is remembered on the internet too; I found forum discussions about him and his regiment.

I have no connection to any of these men. It is not my country or region they died defending. We are not from the same country, and we are certainly not related. Still, I’m happy to see that they are still remembered for their service and that their name hasn’t died with them.

And also I wonder: when I die, will my name be remembered in such a fashion? Will I have done something worthy of remembrance? Or will my name simply fade away?

[In the cemetery I visited today, one of the headstones was marked H. Potter. I felt bad for finding that amusing.]


2 thoughts on “Awful Lot of History In Here

  1. I’ve done the same thing before, walking around a cemetery, wondering about the people, looking at the dates. It was weird how many people died on their birthday. It’s weird too, how the graves of the young give you that heavy-hearted feeling. Even though you don’t know the person.

    I would also find H. Potter amusing.

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