Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 18 August 2008

Lest we forget

Rain seeping from the low-hanging clouds drifts in veils across the fields of maize and hay-bales; the road comes to the war cemetery a mile beyond the shuttered, single-storeyed Flanders village, turning right at the village recycling centre and past the cattle pond (life goes on). 90 years and all but a month ago, my father's cousin David died near here.

He wasn't the closest relative to die in that war. My father's older brother Harry, who'd joined the artillery in India when Dad was barely a toddler, was sent to the second, successful Mesopotamia campaign in 1917. In the confusion of a sudden sandstorm aiding a Turkish counter-attack, Harry was taken prisoner. Since Turkey did not accept the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, there was no news of him for a year; by the time his mother heard that he was held at a place on what is now the Turkish/Syrian border (where, most likely, he was put to work building a railway) he had in fact died of disease three months earlier.

There will be little chance to visit his grave - it's in Baghdad. Perhaps in times to come, historians will see my lifetime, despite all the terrible things that have happened, as an interval of peace and prosperity for most of the western world between the long European civil war over the rights and limits of nationhood, and whatever wars are to come over resources, indeed survival itself, in the face of climate change. But for now, I have to mark the extraordinary good fortune that I've have never had to face the same dangers and sacrifices as millions of others, like David and Harry.

This cemetery is not a great silent rolling sward of gravestones, nor a mighty monument like the Menin Gate or Douaumont. David lies, with Privates McLaughlin, Greenway, and Keating, Fernand Berthou, Jean-Baptiste Guichon, Otto Blassmann, Willy Osterkamp (yes, some Germans are here too) and some 500 others in a space not much larger than a football pitch, a corner of a now not so foreign field, shaded by poplars and tucked in between the cowsheds and a crop of spinach. Freight trains thunder past between Lille and Dunkirk; cars, trucks, tractors and concrete mixers race along the main road. Life goes on.

I haven't found an exact record of how David died. It was between the collapse of the last great German offensive and the final Allied counter-attack: a routine patrol, an opportunist sniper, or accident or disease? Many of the individual service records of that time didn't survive the next war, and the unit war diaries only named officers. In the next war, someone who managed to escape from Crete to Cairo managed to list the names of every casualty in the unit and everyone, like my father, taken prisoner; but in World War One, "other ranks" like Harry and David were simply statistics: "Missing: O.R. 1".

Harry was 24, by the way. David wasn't yet 20.

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