At a time of family fun and celebration, Dan Mills reflects on those who didn’t come home.
As 2012 draws to a close and the New Year is upon us my thoughts naturally return to those who are no longer with us. I have lost several friends and comrades over the years, as we all have as a nation. I find the time to raise a glass for them and hope you do too.
Remembrance Sunday back in November always kick starts these feelings off in me and many other old soldiers. It is an excuse for us to meet up, talk about old comrades, pull up a sandbag and talk about what we did, where we fought, how we got back in one piece and so on. This is the same for all servicemen, of all ages and all the different conflicts, the World over.
As the year ends and excitement for Christmas and the New Year grows many of us spend time once more thinking back over the years before, past experiences and of those we shared the times with, and also of those who are no longer with us.
In an earlier article I wrote a piece about the Christmas truce amongst other things that took place in World War One and for this article it is there that I shall return.
This year I was lucky enough to get involved in what is for me another exciting project, Battlefield Guiding. I have been fortunate enough to tour France and Belgium and visit not just the battlefields but the cemeteries too where I can pay my respects; there are lots and lots of them.
Once the armies had fought each other to a standstill and they were all firmly entrenched in static, trench warfare, many men perished in machine gun and artillery fire. Stretcher parties did their best for the wounded but the sad fact is lots of the injured and the dead were left where they fell for one reason or another, and to this day bodies of the fallen are being discovered.
On the first of July 1916 at the battle of the Somme, that first fateful day saw nearly 60,000 casualties. Now I currently live in a town of about eight thousand, to me that means everyone in my town, and another seven like it would just disappear in one day! Unbelievable but this happened again and again and again.
The Battle of The Somme lasted from 1 July to 18 November 1916 and cost the Germans 650,000 men, the British 420,000 and the French 195,000 men.
Visiting the cemeteries in France and Belgium is a truly humbling experience. The headstones marking each grave seem to go on forever and ever, and vast monuments dominate almost every feature of the landscape. In some areas you can stand and look in every direction and see either a monument or cemetery, they are everywhere.
The pictures you see here are from my latest trips, row upon row, stone after stone, and the most poignant of all, the names on them.
“On the first of July 1916 at the battle of the Somme, that first fateful day saw nearly 60,000 casualties. I live in a town of about eight thousand, to me that means everyone in my town (and another seven like it) would just disappear in one day! “
On the pillars of the missing at Thiepval you will often come across names now blanked out, or the stone has been removed and a new piece put in its place, this is because the missing person named has now been discovered in a field or ditch somewhere, recovered and identified, therefore no longer ‘missing’.
Alternately you can see on other memorials the names in new pieces of stone, now added after they have been discovered elsewhere.
The names are listed under the name of the regiment in which they served, many of these famous regiments now no longer exist but on these walls or a museum somewhere.
One of the most humbling experiences of all is reading the names on the stones, the regiments they belonged to but also the ages of them. This was a period when the recruiting Sergeant would turn a blind eye to young boys telling fibs about their age so they could go off and fight with their friends.
I have seen gravestones of young boys in their early teens. Many of them signed up looking for an adventure, a job, another way of life, but for many of these it would mean the end, thousands never returned home to see their loved ones again.
Initial talk and the romantic excitement of doing your bit, the chatter about it being over by Christmas served to fill the ranks with thousands of volunteers.
My last trip took me to the Somme, where whole units were mown down, wiped out, ceasing to exist. Hundreds of thousands of casualties, killed, injured, missing in action. At a nearby memorial to the missing there are over seventy thousand names, just of those missing!
The conditions in the trenches and ‘No Man’s Land’ were so poor that many bodies simply disappeared into the mud, many never to be seen again.
Curiosity always catches me when I tour and I always seek out fallen soldiers with the same surname as me. I always find some. I am then left wondering who they were, could they be relations? On many of the trips, particularly with school visits there are several of the pupils searching for known relatives. The advent of technology and research material has lead to many graves being visited by relatives, something I think is fantastic to see even if it is somewhat tearful.
German cemeteries are few and far between in the area. This is because back then they were not allowed to bury their dead locally, on the battlefield like we were. After the war was won the Germans were initially told to remove themselves and their dead from French and Belgium soil but this was appealed against in the interests of reconciliation, thereafter they were to gather together their dead and place them in mass graves in a handful of sites.
It is worth visiting the German cemeteries to, to see the differences between ours and theirs. Bright and dark spring to my mind. I visited one of them and learned that Adolf himself had visited the same one during the Second World War to pay his respects.
My final note is a reminder if ever you need one when you are celebrating the good things in life at this festive time and when the year changes from old to new… Spare a thought for those who have laid down their lives both back then and those who still do today, to enable you to do so.
I would very much recommend to anyone who can, to go and visit these areas. There is much to see and to learn about the past and after all, for our tomorrow these young men gave us their today.
Rest in Peace.