28 June, 2017

"The Pity of War"

There can be few places on the planet that better illustrate the futility, the grotesqueness, the unfairness, the awfulness and most of all the sorrow of war than that of Ors, a tiny village in northern France.  We had come to this place on our visit to the Great War graves as part of my pilgrimage (see previous blog: “A little piece of Preston deep in a foreign field”: June 24 2017) and had left the immediate area where my grandfather had spent his Great War years to visit Ors which lies about 15 miles east of the town of Cambrais, deep in rural northern France. It is the sort of timeless place where one can imagine nothing ever happens or changes; steeped in tradition, no claims to glory or fame and populated by ordinary folk who, I suspect, have roots there that go back generations and who largely earn their living on the land or at least associated with the land.

As we entered the village, its few straggling houses just as I remembered from when I had googled the place prior to our visit, the car’s sat-nav immediately guided us to the tiny road that we needed: Rue de la Gare and we slowly drove up the winding, narrow lane. I knew what we were looking for – the wonders of Google had prepared me well – and suddenly we were upon it: the tiny Ors Municipal Cemetery nestling in the fields at the side of the road opposite aged farm buildings and adjacent to the railway track. Solitary visitors, we opened the creaking iron gate and passed the many family graves and tombs, the dates on them confirming the age and history of the village and at the far end of the little cemetery I found what we sought.

Beyond the angel bedecked and ornate grey and black polished stone gothic and baroque family tombs lay the neatly arranged rows of 107 white military headstones standing like soldiers to attention on the parade ground - each one bolt upright, pristine, measured.   I walked along the lines reading the inscriptions; as in other such places that I had visited during this pilgrimage I was both humbled and silenced. These young men had all come to this land a century ago and then been put to rest here many miles away from their homeland - these stones on the edge of this gentle but anonymous village being the only mark of their short but valiant presence in this world.  And then, tucked away near the back, I came upon the object of our pilgrimage,  the simple, unremarkable and uncelebrated grave of England’s greatest war poet, the most read English poet after Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, who had died in Ors on November 4th 1918 – cruelly, just one week before the War finally ended.

In a sense the gravestone says all there is to know of Owen - a quiet, gentle, brave and eloquent poet/soldier - and of the circumstances of his death and, importantly, the terrible aftermath.

The epitaph simply records:
Lieutenant W.E.S Owen
Manchester Regiment
4th November 1918 Aged 25

"Shall life renew
these bodies?
Of a truth
All death will he annul"

The quote on the headstone was chosen by his mother and is an extract from one of her son's poems, "The End". Thus, the story of Owen's tragic death ends with his mother - the epitaph was her choice of her son's words and so she wrote the final chapter on her son's life. But the story of Owen's final days,  the aftermath and his mother's place in it underscore the awful nature of war. It is apposite indeed that she chose his epitaph.

Owen’s poetry stands tall amongst the greatest literary works in our language. It is a measure of his great words and how they have resonated and impacted upon our thoughts and perception not only of the Great War but of all wars when one realises that he only had four poems published within his own short life time (he was but 25 when he died). But the power of Owen’s words in those few poems and that brief life are enough; arguably his three greatest – and certainly most well known - works: Anthem for Doomed Youth, Strange Meeting and Dulce et Decorum Est are the yardsticks by which all other war poetry are and must always be judged.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen's powerful and challenging poetry has been one of the major formative influences on my life and beliefs. I first came across his work in my late teens almost sixty years ago when I studied for my A level History at Blackpool Technical College.  Mr Parkin, the teacher (or “The Colonel” as we nicknamed him because of his military bearing, his clipped no nonsense way of speaking, and military moustache) suggested that as well as learning only the historical  facts of the Great War – its causes and its effects to regurgitate in the A level examination - we needed to “read around” to broaden our understanding. I can remember him now standing in front of the class saying "Read some of the poetry of the war poets like Owen or Sassoon" as, strangely, we sat in the upstairs room of a Jewish synagogue which the college rented for our little class. I have been forever grateful for Mr Parkin’s advice. When I got home to Preston later that day I visited Sweeten's bookshop in Friargate and bought a paperback copy of the Great War poems and since, I have  found  Owen’s writing increasingly rewarding and gratifying, reinforcing my growing pacifist outlook and belief.  Now, as  a  confirmed and confessed pacifist, Owen’s powerful commentary chimes with my own view of the futility, immorality and obscenity of war.
Wilfred Owen's draft of his great poem
"Anthem for Doomed Youth"

But, having said that, I also recognise that my pacifist beliefs and love of Owen’s works hides a paradox. The real power of Wilfred Owen’s  biting words are that although they do indeed  question,  and perhaps condemn war, they are not written by a faux pacifist like me  but by a man tried and tested in the heat of battle, a man highly decorated by his country for his gallantry. Wilfred Owen knew all about the horrors of the trenches, of gas attacks, and of losing one’s comrades and friends in the most awful of circumstances. He had been awarded the Military Cross in October 1918 when he lead his men in storming German positions: “....for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty....assuming command and showing fine leadership.....inflicted considerable losses on the enemy....throughout he behaved most gallantly.....” read the citation. A little over a month later Owen himself was dead, machine gunned by the retreating enemy as he and his comrades attempted to cross the little canal that runs through Ors and which then marked the front line. Owen and his companions lie buried in that little cemetery and alongside him two soldiers both of whom won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry that can be bestowed upon a British soldier. No, Owen was no shrinking violet, he was a thoughtful and brave warrior and that is why his poetry has such power and resonance. Although at the outset of the Great War Owen certainly had  pacifist leanings such was his pride, his honour, his sense of duty and his love of his country that he answered the call to arms and this fact gives his words  a validity and a truth that people like me can never have no matter how sincere or passionate are our views. In modern parlance, Owen had been there, seen it and done  it - and he didn’t like what he witnessed. That is why his words carry such raw power, conviction and ultimately truth, he had earned the right to hold his beliefs and to espouse them; he knew what he was talking about.
Where Wilfred Owen is buried in the military section
of Ors Municipal Cemetery

As the War dragged to a conclusion Owen planned to publish a collection of his war poems. He had gathered together many of his works and had begun to write a preface to his book ready for publication. He wrote: “This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands or anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful”.
Picnic by the canal

Those powerful yet self effacing words “The pity of war” say it all; read Owen's poems and I defy anyone to again think of war as an exciting or glorious thing. The last few days of Owen’s short life are dreadful witness to this; they and their aftermath are war made real -not the swaggering, bravado Hollywood version or the jingoistic, pumped up glorious, flag waving, military version of war but the appalling, immoral, mind and gut wrenching reality, tragedy and pity of war. The Great War, and its consequences, brought death, injury and hardship to millions but to learn of Owen’s final days is to personalise all this and with a dreadful symmetry and inevitability expose what war can really mean to those involved - and not only the combatants.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
The Foresters Cottage as Owen would have seen it.

So, we stood in the little cemetery for a few moments in the bright morning sun, still, unspeaking, heads bowed, and perhaps a little overcome by Owen’s grave and the story that we knew it told. And then, our small gentle homage done we then retraced our steps back into the village centre. It was lunch time, there were no shops to be seen in this tiny hamlet but squashed by the side of the post office on the main square where a farmer's tractor and harvesting machine stood waiting to be set to work in the surrounding fields, we found a little pathway leading to a field. Picnic tables were arranged so we sat there and ate our picnic in the lunchtime sun. At the end of the field were trees and beyond them a canal - the canal – where Wilfred Owen and his comrades met their death on November 4th 1918. It wasa delightful, tranquil setting – but somehow the events of a century ago hovered overhead. In my mind's eye I could not stop myself from picturing what it must have been like on that November day a century ago as the staccato rattle of machine guns and the cries of men filled the village air.  

When Owen and his comrades came to Ors, the Great War was drawing to its close. The German army were in retreat and many thousands had already surrendered. On October 31st Owen and his men took refuge in the cellar of a forester’s cottage in a wood on the edge of the village and that night Owen wrote to his mother, Susan, who lived in his home town, Oswestry. He wrote:

Dearest Mother,

The cellar where Owen and his comrades
sought refuge.

I will call the place from which I'm now writing "The Smoky Cellar of the Forester's House". I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack. My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight and tomorrow night. The handkerchief and socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, and I have a slight cold!

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the Coy. commander snores on a bench, other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Coy. in the Old days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.

Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes in the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.

It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside & the hollow crashing of the shells.

There is no danger down here - or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

I hope you are as warm as I am, as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here."

Ever Wilfred X

On November 4th Owen and his men were under orders to leave their cellar and to assist in the building of a pontoon bridge to cross  the Sambre-Oise Canal. It was dangerous work under fire from the desperate but well established German machine guns on the opposite bank. The Manchester Regiment (to which Owen belonged), the Lancashire Fusiliers and the Royal Engineers went into action to assemble the prefabricated sections of the bridge but their work was over before it had barely started.  Under withering fire from the opposite bank, many were killed, among the Wilfred Owen.
Owen's writing is inscribed on the walls of the sweeping
pathway leading to the cellar at the Forester's Cottage. 

But the story of Owen’s death, terrible though it was, does not end there. There is an awful sting in the tail which makes the whole story almost too terrible to retell and which details the awful and pitiful sorrow of war.

Exactly one week, seven days, after the dreadful deaths by the side of that little canal in that beautiful but nondescript French village the Great War officially ended on November 11th 1918. And on that day as people throughout  Europe thanked their God and in Britain wild celebrations began, Susan Owen listened to the Oswestry church bells ringing out - as they were throughout Britain - proclaiming that the war was over. As she listened and heard the cheering crowds on the streets of Oswestry she perhaps dreamed of her son returning safely from France when her thoughts were interrupted. There was a knock at the door. It was a telegram from the War Office in London informing her of Wilfred’s death under enemy fire. Later that same week she received the letter that he had written on October 31st in that cellar, telling her that he was well and she should not be worried, that "There is no danger down here - or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines".
In the darkened room the words of Owen's poems
projected as they are spoken

It is difficult to find the words to comprehend the awful hopelessness that Susan Owen must have felt as she  read the dreaded telegram and listened to the celebrating bells and cheering, happy neighbours - and then to have the knife so dreadfully and cruelly turned inside her by receiving the posthumous letter telling her not to worry and that he was well, that there was no danger. What dreadful symmetry is that? It truly is the stuff of nightmares, enough, I am sure, to profoundly mark a person for the rest of their life. If it was the plot of a novel or a Hollywood blockbuster it would be dismissed as "far fetched". For me the only words that come close to describing the sheer obscenity and awfulness of a world at war that allows this sort of thing to occur are those used by Owen himself in his overwhelmingly powerful and biting poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est”. The final dreadful words to that great poem – arguably the greatest words of all the War poems and by the greatest of the war poets – say it all:

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old lie: Dulce et Decorum, est
Pro patria mori”

(“Dulci et Decorum Est Pro patria mori” is a quote from the Roman poet Horace and means “It is sweet  and honourable to die for one’s country” )

Susan Owen, Wilfred's mother. 

And so, with this terrible story in mind we left our picnic place, where Owen had met his dreadful end, for the last stage in our journey in Ors. To the edge of the village and to that little wood and on the edge of the wood a brilliant white house – the Maison Forestiere – that forester’s cottage where Owen had spent his last days and from where he had written to his mother in far off Oswestry. The house has been turned not into a museum but a commemoration, a kind of shrine to Wilfred Owen and his comrades.


A broad sweeping, curved path leads to the cellar, the wall of the pathway beautifully engraved with the words of Owen’s poems and his letter to his mother. Step through the  door at the end of the walkway and you are suddenly in the cellar, empty and unchanged since 1918. No more gleaming white walls, no more bright minimalistic, modernistic architecture but aged, unchanged brickwork and gloomy shadows.  It is damp and musty, earthy as the grave; there is no light save that from a tiny window that just peeps above the outside earth. One can imagine Owen and his fellow soldiers squashed in here just as he described to his mother; it is a place where you can almost touch the past, feel the shadows of the men who had been there on those fateful days in late 1918; redolent  with the atmosphere of its history. It is a place to visit, to think, to reflect upon what it harbours. It is not a place to linger or to enjoy – I found it almost suffocating such is its oppressive and tragic story.

The Forester's Cottage today beautifully and sympathetically
remembers Owen and what happened at Or
The low, arched roof must have caused problems for any of Owen's men taller than me. As I stood there, my head almost reaching the damp brickwork above,  the weight of its dreadful history bore down and whispered "Go, leave this place to its past and to its ghosts". Above, the house has been opened up, where once there would have been small rooms there is now a large and high open space going up into the roof void. It is darkened, Bible black, silent, walls white and bare; you feel isolated from the world outside. No bird song enters here, no sun or blue sky lights the room, no view of the outside woodland distracts your attention.......and then, as you stand in the blackness, confused, disorientated, ill at ease with where you are, the words of Owen's great poems, in English and French are fed through hidden speakers. And as they are spoken the words, each poem's lines flicker upon the walls; in the darkness your  senses are assaulted by Owen's great and dreadful words speaking from the grave and across the years, telling of man's inhumanity to man and of the unimaginable horror and obscenity of war
The gateway to the cemetery where
each year on November 4th the French
villagers gather to remember English soldiers
and one of the greatest English poets

There is at Ors no Wilfred Owen theme park to entertain or even to celebrate one of England's – indeed the world’s – greatest poets or to retell the story of the place. There are no interactive museums or Wilfred Owen gift shops selling volumes of his work or unsuitably embellished stationery or  tastelessly decorated tea towels. There is no pub flying Union flags or selling Wilfred Owen ale or Oswestry vin rouge. There is  no fast food joint enticing the madding crowds with Wilfred Owen burgers or the Wilfred Owen plat du jour.  No, there is just a tiny, unremarkable, quiet and unassuming French village that one can drive through in less than a couple of minutes. Its day to day life goes on as it has done for centuries but neither the village nor its residents are ignorant or dismissive or uncaring of Owen's story and of his importance - in fact the opposite. They remember him with a quiet dignity that seemed to me to be most appropriate for this gentle unassuming man who had the gift of words to express his quiet but powerful beliefs and to tell of the horrors that he was witness to.  The village’s little school is named after Wilfred Owen and each year on November 4th the whole village congregate at that bleak but beautiful little cemetery at the end of Rue de la Gare on the edge of the farmer's fields and near the railway track to pay their tribute and listen to the great but terrible words of the poet soldier and his comrades. They quietly acknowledge - celebrate would be the wrong word - Wilfred Owen and his great words which have, for so many years  forcibly reminded us of what he so rightly called “the pity of War”. From what I know of Wilfred Owen, this gentle but valiant man, I think that he might have been satisfied with that.


Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


24 June, 2017

A little piece of Preston deep in a foreign field

We stood, my wife Pat and I, in the bright morning sun looking across a perfectly manicured sweep of grass and up the slight incline. In front and above us was a brilliant blue, cloudless sky and at the top of the incline, towering above all, dominating  sky and trees and soaring above the horizon stood  the truly awe inspiring and at the same time humbling  monolith that is the Thiepval Memorial near Arras in northern France.

I had come to this place, three weeks ago, as part of our annual holiday in France; it was a sort of personal mission; a mission to square the circle, a mission to put something to rest. When my parents died, well over a decade ago now I found amongst my mother’s papers old letters written by her father, my grandfather, relating to his service during the Great War (see my blog “Touching the Past”: Feb. 2011:  http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/back-to-blogging-weve-been-away-to.html ). I knew a little of his war service but these letters filled in many blanks and since reading them I have had a desire to visit the places where he served in that great and terrible conflict. My grandfather, Joe Derbyshire, had left his young wife Jane and his baby son Albert – my uncle - in late 1915 to answer his country’s call. He had left his little two up two down, no bathroom, no hot water, lavatory in the back yard terraced house at 5 Rigby Street, Preston and marched off to war with his friends in the Loyal North Lancashire  Regiment. I can still remember as a child sitting with him in his kitchen; a gentle, quiet elderly man. I can still remember the polished boots that he always wore, one of which had a very thick sole and heel to provide support for the leg which was slightly shorter than the other after it was smashed by shrapnel in 1918.  He survived the war albeit with injuries that blighted his health until the day he died in the early 1950’s and apart from his three years in France he lived all his life in that same Rigby Street house.
My grandfather (marked with a cross) with his regimental pals in 1916. I wonder if  any of these men "ceased to be" and now their names are inscribed at Thiepval?
So we stood gazing up at the Thiepval Memorial. I had seen pictures of it on many occasions. I knew that it was the great memorial of the Battle of the Somme and dedicated to the missing British and Commonwealth servicemen who died in that terrible conflict but have no known grave. I was, however, quite unprepared for what I saw, learned and indeed felt. Standing in the warm morning sun, deep in the tranquil and lovely French countryside it was impossible to relate where we stood to the grainy black and white images we are used to seeing of the horrors of that Somme battlefield when this quiet countryside was reduced to a nightmare from hell; a world of mud, twisted metal, shells, bombs, skeleton trees, rotting corpses and death on an unimaginable scale. This area was the front line of the battle and on that brilliant blue day and the other days that we were in the area we journeyed through the fields and lanes where the fighting was once at its most bestial and where my grandfather had fought with his comrades. As I stood at the bottom of the grassy knoll I looked up at the monument and wondered “Did Joe’s eyes see this horizon through the smoke and death of the Somme hell?”
Joe Derbyshire with Jane and baby Albert

I knew from the records that I had researched that this area was where his regiment had operated and where in October 1916 he had been shot in the chest and where later, in 1918, he had suffered a leg injury caused by flying shrapnel. He was taken to a German field hospital  where medical staff saved his leg, although he always afterwards  limped – and then he was shipped off as a prisoner of war for a few months until the conclusion of the fighting in November 1918. My research had given me names of the places that his regiment been during the conflict: Aveluy, Toutencourt, the Bapaume/Cambrais Road, Albert, Beaumetz, Fremencourt, Gomiecourt.............. and in the days that we were there we visited each of these places – many now just sleepy villages. As we drove through them or perhaps stopped in the market square I wondered: had his eyes seen these places, had he marched proudly through them or had he been lying on a stretcher racked with pain and unsure if he would ever see Jane or his baby son, or his home town in north Lancashire again. This was not a mission to seek out heroic tales, or jingoistically wave Union flags or celebrate military pomp, nor was it a mission of great personal sadness. It was simply a desire to visit where he had been and maybe see what he might have seen over a century before.

I knew the grim statistics of the Somme. The first Battle of the Somme lasted from July 1st 1916 to November 18th 1916 and claimed some 420,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German casualties. On the first day of the battle the British army had its largest ever loss of lives in a single day when some 20,000 perished and in the seven days leading up to that first day, the British artillery pummelled the German lines with some 1.5 million shells. The deathly list goes on and underlining the horror of the whole thing is that during the battle some 72,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers died on the Somme and have no known graves. These are the men who were blown to smithereens or whose bodies rotted in the Somme mud and which the Thiepval  Memorial  commemorates.

But statistics, horrifying and unimaginable though these numbers might be do not tell all the tale. As I stood there gazing up at the memorial I began to feel uneasy. Despite all this death and injury little changed; no one won. In chess terms the Battle of the Somme was pretty much stalemate and from my perspective a century later I cannot stop myself asking what was it all for? And as I stood there I reflected that wherever we had driven through this bright and lovely countryside we had come across cemeteries, by the wayside, in the middle of a farmer’s field, on the edge of a village – French, British, German, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand,......... , small and large, some containing a handful of graves, others hundreds. All were diligently and lovingly cared for by local French people and each had a quiet beauty, an almost tangible  timelessness and sense of reverence.  But they all begged questions: just how many graves are there, how many people have to die in the name of nations and of war......and, most telling, every grave was the grave of a soldier, a living man who had walked, talked, laughed, cried, loved  - be they British, French, German or whatever. And every one of those who lay in those burial grounds, their pristine headstone bright under the day’s sparkling sun, must have thought his service and death were righteous and worthy, fit for their nation’s great cause; he must have believed that somehow God was on his side. But, can God, if there be a God, be on everybody’s side?
A small part of one of the great pillars

As I  began my walk up to the Memorial I thought back to my grandfather: an ordinary workman (a journeyman whitesmith - a worker in white metals such as pewter). He had little learning and had only rarely been further than his own little town, Preston. In those days before TV, mobile phones, cheap flights to Europe or further, computers and all the other  fripperies of our modern age, coming to a strange and foreign country, albeit only a few miles across the English Channel, must have been, for Joe Derbyshire and thousands like him, like going to the moon. I wonder what he made of it all as he looked on the same landscape that I gazed upon -  although the landscape he saw in that sweltering but wet and stormy summer of 1916 was not the thing of beauty and tranquillity that I enjoyed but a grotesque hell of death and destruction. 
Just a tiny fraction of the men of the Loyal North Lancs. who did not return home to Preston and north Lancashire
and whose resting place is unknown. The only record of their existence being on the mighty pillars at Thiepval.
Were any of them my grandfather's friends or neighbours? Surely, in a town like Preston one or two must have been.
The Thiepval Memorial was designed by arguably the greatest of British architects Sir Edwin Lutyens. Its 16 great pillars are carved with the names of the 72,000 men of Britain and the Commonwealth who died on the Somme and have no known grave and as I neared the monument I could almost feel the weight of history. Other visitors like me were dwarfed by its vastness, made to feel very small as the weight of great history and great endeavour weighed down. Although we were out in the open, still under that cloudless blue sky, people spoke in whispers; this was a place of enormous reverence, of overpowering awe and wonder. It was a place to humble the most brash, proud, certain and sure of men, because of what it symbolised and what had happened there. As I walked around I watched as a group of "bikers" made their way up the  grassy incline; all in their leathers, bandanas around their heads, tee shirts with death's head and heavy metal motifs, arms tattooed, flowing locks and beards - incongruous in such a place. But as they approached their banter fell into whispers and as they got to the top of the steps near where I stood and where poppy wreaths lay, they had  fallen strangely silent, heads bowed. They walked in silence gazing up at the great pillars, like me their mouths agape at what they read, saw and, I suspect, felt. A place indeed to silence even the mighty.

I had read much on Thiepval before coming. I thought that I knew it all. I may have known the facts but what I did not know was the human story. I did not know that this memorial is not simply a great brick and stone edifice – it is more, much more. I walked around my eyes gazing up at the great pillars each inscribed on every face, row after row, column after column, thousand after thousand, as far as the eye could see the names of men who were simply “lost” in the war. They had simply ceased to exist, with no known grave, no resting place no headstone to acknowledge their place within all humanity, except this - names chiselled out of the stone, so many that one's eyes lost focus as they tried to take in this catalogue of death. I could have accepted it if this was just a record of the men that died and were buried honourably and respectfully in some churchyard elsewhere - recognised as brave young men who gave up their lives for their cause, as is the lot of all soldiers. But to realise that these vast numbers where simply those who died unknown and unplaced I found overwhelming; I wanted to leave this place. But then, as I struggled to get to grips with all that this meant I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. My eyes had idly wandered to the very top of a pillar and with a lurching heart I suddenly realised that these were not simply great anonymous lists of men, but lists of men arranged in their regiments.  And so, my heart racing, I began to look - racing between the pillars, squinting my eyes to read the regimental legends at the top of each of these mighty columns. And, as my eyes got used to peering at the small writing many feet above my head, I picked out the regimental names: The Black Watch, The Highlanders, The Sherwood Foresters, The Coldstream Guards......it was a great regimental roll call of the great names of the British army and of British history.........and then, my heart almost stopping, with a sickening jolt I came upon what I sought: four or five columns all of which were headed “LOYAL NORTH LANCS. REGT”.
Joe's badges, they lie on my desk in front of me now as I write this.
You can see the one on the left in his cap on the photograph above

I stood overwhelmed gazing at the names. Men as my grandfather, soldiers of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, but these men had "ceased to be". Like my grandfather they had left their homes – probably in north Lancashire, or from Preston itself – and  their whereabouts  are not now known. Suddenly it all felt very, very personal . My grandfather had survived this terrible conflict but here were men who had not. They had not been killed and buried respectfully and honourably as thousands were or, like my grandfather, sustained injuries from which they always bore the scars.  No, they had simply "ceased to be" – obliterated, blown to smithereens, fallen victim of some machine gun fire and their corpse rotted into the mud of no man’s land. And as I stood there, my heart racing, my eyes filling with tears, I wondered to myself had my grandfather known any of these men?  Surely he must have done, for after all Preston is not a large place. Had he perhaps enjoyed a pint of beer with one or two of them before the war? Had he said good morning to any of them each Sunday morning at Ribbleton Avenue Methodist Church? Had any of these men been his particular pal in the regiment? Had he stood by the side of any of these men in the trench as they waited for the whistle and shout to go over the top?  Had any of these men been a workmate or a neighbour in Rigby Street – or even a relation? Had my grandfather spoken to any of these men on the day that they "ceased to be" – were the last words that they spoke on this earth to my grandfather before they went over the top to be obliterated? This was  a terrible history made dreadfully real.

And as I gazed at the list of names, unable to draw my eyes away, my heart skipped another beat. These were men who lived and died a century ago – almost thirty years before I was even born and yet here were names that I recognised. I didn’t know these men, how could I, but so many surnames I recognised from my childhood and teenage years growing up in Caroline Street. These were surnames that I always, and still today, associate with Preston, my home town. The names of my childhood, my street,  my school (St Matthews and the Fishwick Secondary)........Halliwell, Isherwood, Moran, Duxberry, Rogerson, Greenhalgh, Rigby, Clarkson, Bamber, Ainsworth, Parkinson, Unsworth, Bilsborough, Howarth, Cunliffe, Higham, Masheter, Shuttleworth, Butterworth, Kellett, Heaton, Hornby, Lonsdale, Sharples...........almost an endless list. They are what I always call (maybe mistakenly) "good Preston names" and which if I ever read or hear them today still take me back to my home town which I left in the mid 1960s. I wondered if any of these men were grandfathers, uncles or great grandfathers of boys and girls that I had been at school with all those years ago; were any distantly related to people in my street who bore that surname?  One name I noticed was R. Derbyshire - was I related to him, my grandfather was Derbyshire, my mother was until she married my father. Yes, it was getting all very personal indeed.
Joe (front row marked with a cross) recuperating after being shot in
the chest in October 1916

So I stood in the morning sunshine, looking up at the great archways and vast pillars  around me and at the carefully scribed names. In the distance, where once mud, skeletal trees, smoke, grotesque barbed wire and death filled the land and the air there were now lush green meadows, fields heavy with crops, trees in full foliage, picturesque farm houses and cattle grazing. Above, high in the sky, swifts soared and blackbirds sang where once there had been the deathly staccato rattle of machine guns and the ear splitting, mind destroying and ground shaking thump of heavy artillery.

And as I stood there looking up at the mighty columns and their terrible roll call of death, a great and terrible truth entered my consciousness:  I only stood there on that bright blue morning in this, my eighth decade and in these early years of the 21st century, because a century ago my grandfather was one of the lucky ones – he didn’t “cease to be”. He came home – badly injured – but home, and safely back to his Jane and to his baby son and to Rigby Street where a year or two later Jane gave birth to my mother. Had fate decreed it in those far off and terrible days, my grandfather could just as easily have been obliterated in the blink of an eye - just another unmarked, victim of the monstrous carnage that was the Somme.  And if he had fallen, a victim of those murderous rattling machine guns or body destroying mortar shells, his form falling and rotting in the acres of Somme mud then his name, too, would now been chiselled into those mighty and dreadfully beautiful columns. And, if it had been thus, I grimly reflected, then neither I, nor indeed my children and grandchildren, would be here today - like the men who had been obliterated and ceased to be on that battlefield a hundred years ago so, too, would I and my children not exist. It was a sobering and humbling thought; how thin indeed is the thread upon which we all hang.
So, feeling humbled and yet grateful and very, very small within this great sweep of dreadful history I turned away. I was emotionally drained – and more than a little angry at the futile obscenity of war - as  I walked back down the memorial's steps and then the little grassy slope leaving this great monument behind me. Across the peaceful, bright and verdant French countryside before me swathes of poppies made a brilliant scarlet hue against the green of the growing crops. And when I reached the bottom of the slope I stopped and turned and looked up, back to where I had been: back to that great, wonderful, overpowering yet  dreadful and humbling memorial, knowing that a small part of north Lancashire and Preston, a little of my heritage, lay there, deep in that foreign field.