Picture, if you will, a long copse of trees, a small car park and cool blue skies. It’s a short walk across a quiet road, into the shade of the woods and a soft, yet bright hello from a guide. You listen to the introduction about the museum, and the advice to wait for a school trip to finish. You wander on, curious to see the lay of the land. You walk along the gravel path, its stones grinding underfoot as you reach a tallish island of stacked rocks, amidst the meadow grass.
There’s a statue on top of the rocks, perhaps a moose, or an elk. It’s too big to be a reindeer. Numerous signs are dotted around and there’s a stillness to the place. Of the few people about, they move slowly, taking it all in. Voices don’t carry here. Not even the soft whisper as a couple pass.
It’s a beautiful quiet. That detachment you rarely find in the modern world. Maybe a library, somewhere deep inside the stacks, where the hubbub of the coffee shop, or distant traffic is lost. That spell of silence you don’t want to break. Even the kids are quiet.
To your right, away from the trees and on the cusp of a hill dropping into a valley, there are some odd bumps in the ground. Soft, gentle curves covered by grass and the start of Spring’s bloom. They criss-cross and dip into the ground. A little deeper than a ditch and definitely man made.
These are the trenches from the First World War. The Somme.
You walk along the pea-gravel path, finding the turn, along the winding spiral to the statue. Up and round you walk, taking in all of the park and a long, wide view over the valley. A sign tells you about the Newfoundland army who were based here. Men who went over the top, when the whistles blew. Over they went, down into the open, barren hell that was No Man’s Land. Deep into the drop, before the hill that marked the German lines.
You return you gaze to the plaque and re-read the line you’ve just read. Around 100 men remained from the initial advance of just under 800. Many didn’t even reach the half way mark, of the broken tree….. and this. It’s just one battle.
“Tread softly here! Go reverently and slow!
Yea, let your soul go down upon its knees,
And with bowed head and heart abased strive hard
To grasp the future gain in this sore loss!
For not one foot of this dank sod but drank
Its surfeit of the blood of gallant men.
Who, for their faith, their hope,—for Life and Liberty,
Here made the sacrifice,—here gave their lives.
And gave right willingly—for you and me.”
~ John Oxenham (1852-1941)
Atop the monument, under the gaze of the caribou, I held the Ever Lovely Mrs J as she cried. She wasn’t the only one. I cried because of the deaths, because of those who fought to keep other safe and because my family – my loved ones – are still here. I appreciate this may read a little ‘War Porn’, or misery lit, but to say that cheapens it, would be to say Greece owes the IMF a few bob.
We don’t have any family from Newfoundland. My great-grandfather fought elsewhere. He was 27 when he was killed. My Gran didn’t speak of him. But then, why would she and would I, as a child, have asked? I doubt it. The 80s may have had the end of the Cold War, but that was a distant thing. As a kid, I couldn’t – or didn’t want to – imagine the loss of a parent. Let alone a dozen, or a hundred people killed.
If emotion is the cement of memory, then that day out to Beaumont Hamel will not leave me. Later, when I talked about this with my Dad, he sighed gently and said: “perhaps a few politicians should go.” Then, as we’re British, we had a cup of tea and talked about the weather. 🙂