Driving back from the south of France in August we decided that we would visit one of the many Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries; I have done this before, but it seemed especially right to do it this year. We did not have any particular place in mind but – for those of you who may not have driven through the area – there are literally dozens and they are very well signposted. Some are small with only twenty or thirty graves; others are huge. The largest is Tyne Cot Cemetery which has 11,900 graves.
We ended up, quite arbitrarily, at Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery and Memorial which is just south east of Arras.
The cemetery contains 2369 graves of which 1458 are not identified; the backdrop to the cemetery is a curved white memorial upon which are inscribed the names of 9847 soldiers who have no known grave. This memorial and cemetery commemorates soldiers who were killed in the period from 8th August to 11th November 1918 in a battle period known as The Advance to Victory, a series of battles during which forces from Great Britain, Ireland and South Africa finally pushed the German forces eastwards.
Any visit to one of these places is moving but this visit had an added dimension ‒ something very simple and yet quite profound. When we pulled up in the lay by, the only other car there was a taxi. In the cemetery there was a lady, perhaps in her fifties, standing by one of the graves. In due course she came to us, visibly distressed and asked if we were looking for someone in particular because she had a map; we said “No” and shared a few words with her, whereupon she said “I have a spare cross. Would you like to place it somewhere?” She then said she had to go to the taxi.
All those graves and the memorial! Where to put our cross with a poppy? Coming from County Durham I looked for a grave of a Durham Light Infantry soldier but failing there we settled for something close ‒ the Northumberland Fusiliers.
This month, thousands upon thousands of words will be written about the 1914 – 1918 war and rightly so. The rights and wrongs of it, the futility of it, the scale of the casualties, the horror of the trenches the loss of millions of young lives.
All I want to add to that is to emphasise the importance of not forgetting. Given the age of the lady we met, whatever family member she was remembering, it must have been someone fairly distant. And yet she was visibly moved. The remembering was important to her. Our very act of stopping and being invited to place a cross on any grave meant that soldier from Northumberland was not forgotten.
The Bible reminds us that we are prone to forget:
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them. (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
For that reason alone, we need to make the effort to remember.
Geoffrey Lowson, TS, 2018
I came upon this article by chance, but it resonates deeply with me. In 2018, Andrew and I visited the Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery and Memorial so that I could pay my respects to my Great Uncle, James Brampton, one of the many with an unknown grave, who served and fought with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 1915 -1918. To this day, I cannot put into words the effect of visiting such a special, sad place, other than to say, with all humility, “Thank you”.
We will remember them.
Feature Image: Vise-En-Artois War Graves