One of the great obsessions after the war was how to come to terms with the ‘missing’ - the many thousands of young soldiers who were either vaporised, or blown to pieces, by high explosives; or were drowned and lost in the mud. Last week I tried to tell the heartbreaking search for their missing son Jack, by the Kiplings. For months they haunted hospitals, interviewed soldiers, even dropped leaflets on enemy territory, pleading for information. Even though the Somme still reveals bodies today, Jack Kipling was never found.
Before the war ended, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was under pressure to build memorials to the dead. Travelling through north eastern France today, the landscape reveals the great sweep of graves, its grass meticulously cut, the walls still appear new and gleaming. Inside each gate a list of the soldiers buried there is provided, with an easy guide to find a family relative among the thousands and thousands of graves. Each grave has its own small flowerbed, with the name of the soldier, his rank and regiment neatly cut on its Portland headstone.
Sometimes you come across a more personal message that jars your heart:
‘If love could have saved him he would not have died’.
‘A sorrow too deep for words’.
But how do you honour the missing, when no body has been found? One answer is the dramatic memorial built at Thiepval, once the heart of the Somme battle, and which today dominates the rural scene for miles around. It was designed by Edwin Lutyens, an Englishman, who created this vast building which soars 140 ft (43m ) into the sky. The immensity of this structure, with its giant interlocking empty archways, suggests the tragedy of the disappeared dead. The names of a staggering 72,000 men who were lost in the Somme battles, and have no known grave, are carved on its stone piers.*
There are two Galway names on this monument. One is simply Coleman Berry, Royal Irish Regiment 6th Bn, killed September 3 1916. The other is Joseph Burke, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 8th Bn, killed September 9 1916. Additional information supplied, shows that Joseph, 28 years, was the son of Joseph and Mary Burke, the husband of Eva E Burke, of Hill House, Clifden, Co Galway.
In total contrast is the seldom visited German cemetery by the Fricourt-Contalmaison road. The Germans had no War Graves Commission, and many of the German dead were never recovered from the Somme battlefield. About 5,000 men are buried here, as many as five to each grave, each marked by a bare, black, metal cross.
It is a sombre place with trees. There is a German tradition that the spirits of the dead reside in trees. The graveyard is on a slope. At the high end lie large blocks of stone.
Apparently Adolf Hitler, who was a lance corporal in the German army, fought and was wounded at the Somme.
Twenty-fours later, just after dawn on June 28 1940, his generals having accepted the surrender of France, Hitler allowed himself a brief tour of Paris. What conqueror could resist a tour of captured Paris?
In the afternoon he asked to be taken to the Somme. He visited the Fricourt cemetery. He was pleased enough with what he saw. He ordered that two large stone statues, depicting German soldiers, should stand guard at the top of the cemetery.
The stone blocks were delivered, but history had moved on before they were carved.
‘Today the Somme is a peaceful but sullen place, unforgetting and unforgiving’, writes Paul Fussell, in his unflinching book The Great War and Modern Memory.**
‘The people, who work largely at raising vegetables and grains, are ‘correct’ but not friendly. To wander now over the fields, destined to extrude their rusty metal fragments for centuries is to appreciate in the most intimate way the permanent reverberations of July 1916. When the air is damp you can smell rusted iron everywhere, even though you see only wheat and barley.
‘The farmers work the fields without joy. They collect the duds, shell-casings, fuses, and shards of old barbed wire as the plow unearths them and stack them in corners of their fields. Some of the old barbed wire, both British and German, is used for fencing. Many of the shell craters are still there, though smoothed out and grown over. The mine craters are too deep to be filled and remain much as they were.
‘When the sun is low in the afternoon, on the gradual slopes of the low hills you see the traces of the zig-zag of trenches. many farmhouses have out in back one of the little British wooden huts that used to house soldiers well behind the lines; they make handy toolsheds. Lurking in every spot of undergrowth just off the beaten track are eloquent little things: rusted buckles, rounds of corroded small-arms ammunition, metal tabs from ammunition boxes, bits of Bully tin, buttons.’
My son and I visited the area earlier this year. Walking on the edge of a ploughed field, within minutes we picked up a dozen or so hard metal balls (spewed out from an exploding shell ), a length of rusted barbed wire (its points still sharp ), and a nasty piece of twisted metal shrapnel, that would surely slice deep into any soft flesh creating a deadly wound.***
NOTES: * Edwin Lutyens, later knighted for his services, also designed the Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, Dublin. A friend of Lady Gregory’s nephew, the art collector Hugh Lane, Lutyens designed a magnificent art gallery and bridge to straddle the river Liffy, which would house Lane’s gift of paintings to the Irish nation.
Dublin City Council turned down the plan, however, as it could not justify its cost. Lane and WB Yeats were furious.
Lutyens designed several country houses in Ireland, including Costelloe Lodge, at Casla, Co Galway, which became the refuge for J Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line following the sinking of the Titanic. Lutyens enjoyed a brillient career. In contrast to the Thiepval memorial he designed the Cenotaph, at Whitehall, London, the centerpiece for war memorial services on November 11 each year; and, surprisingly, many of the new Government buildings in New Delhi, known today as ‘Lutyens Delhi.’ He died January 1 1944 aged 74 years.
**First published by Oxford University Press 1975.
*** We travelled with Terres de Memoire - Battlefield Tours (80204 Péronne Cedex-France tel: +33 (0 ) 322842305 ), which offers small groups, intimate tours of the Somme. Recommended.