Last year, I visited Ypres and the surrounding area for the Passchendaele 100th anniversary commemorations. There was more to see and do than I could fit into that weekend, so a year later I returned to tick off the missing items: The 6km “Canadian Road to Passchendaele” signposted walk, Essex Farm cemetery and dressing station, Langemark German cemetery, Polygon Wood and the preserved trenches and museum at Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood.
Langemark cemetery was particularly fascinating and worth a visit. I had briefly wondered previously why there were so few cemeteries for the German dead and naively assumed maybe their bodies had been returned to Germany or something. The truth is far grimmer: while Belgium gave the Commonwealth their graveyards for free, they charged Germany an exorbitant amount for the land. (I suppose you cannot blame them). They simply could not afford to bury their dead the way we did. The known soldiers are piled up in a single grave, up to ten per headstone. The stones are black, flat to the ground and bear no inscription but the soldier’s name, date of death and rank. Worse still, a huge open space in the centre is actually the mass grave of 22,000 unknown soldiers. There are no religious statements, no pride or honour. The cemetery is dark, austere and silent. There are no birds in the trees and no flowers grow amongst the graves. Whilst the commonwealth graveyards are peaceful places, full of pride for our ancestors’ sacrifices, the German cemetery seems filled with a deep sense of shame. Apparently only 3% of visitors to the cemetery are German. I think if I were German I would want to stay away too. I feel desperately sorry for those poor men, who were doing a job, just as our soldiers were, but are not remembered as heroes and are commemorated beneath cold, dark, bleak stone.
The other thing I had left to do was make a visit to my great uncle, Frank Beale.
Frank Beale has been dead for 102 years and no one has ever visited his grave. He lies near to where he fell when he was shot by a sniper whilst in camp in a small town just outside Lille. He was never engaged in any battle which I suppose makes him one of the luckier ones. I took the train to the village of Cuinchy, armed with an A4 laminate that I would leave at Frank’s grave to tell anyone who happened to visit Guard’s Cemetery a little bit about his life: his family, home and work back in Sussex, how – as the only son of Phoebe and Percy Beale – the Beale surname died with him, and how his heartbroken sister Ada named her son after him.
As I walked through the streets of Cuinchy I was struck more than anything about just how far Frank Beale was from home. I imagined Percy, Phoebe and his sisters grieving for him, unable to afford a visit or even imagine the place in which he was buried. Apparently a form was sent to relatives when the gravestones were erected for them to request an inscription and add the soldier’s age, but Frank has neither. I think this most likely because Percy, a farm labourer, would have been illiterate and unable to read the form. It struck me too that if this was the case, he would have been unable to read the telegram that had told him his son had been killed.
Frank was buried in a row of soldiers from his regiment who had died within a couple of days of him and I found it vaguely reassuring that he was amongst friends and that there seemed to be some kind of order to this cemetery, unlike Tyne Cot where there is a complete jumble of nationalities, regiments, dates and varying quantities of Unknown Soldiers in each grave. At least Frank never knew the full horror of the war and his death was quick. But at the same time, I felt desperately sad and helpless. He’d waited 102 years for a visitor, and I was just going to leave him here, in this alien land, robbed of his life and his future. Telling others of his story didn’t seem enough – I wanted his story to have a different ending. And as I looked around the cemetery, I saw 1246 other graves, each man with his own story, and as much as the inscriptions told me that they would be remembered and that their “names liveth forever”, I wondered how many others had gone unvisited for a century and how many even had a living relative who knew they existed.