Friday, 27 September 2013

Ghosts

Today started with the Simpsons in French! I switched the telly on very briefly whilst waiting for Nathan to shower and was highly amused to hear a passable impression of Madge - chronic nodules and all - Speaking French! 

I looked out of the window and saw that it was surprisingly misty, which felt so appropriate that I began to get impatient to leave the hotel before the sun burnt through.

We went first to a place called Lochnager Crater, an enormous shell hole, just East of Albert, which was created by the Brits two minutes before they charged over the top on July 1st. The explosion was the work of British miners who carefully tunnelled underneath the German front line, and detonated a tonne of explosives. At the time it was the loudest sound ever created by mankind and it blew the Germans to kingdom come. 

The men going over the top in that area were the Grimsby chums, who have the distinction of being the only Pals regiment to use a different suffix. They reached the enormous shell hole and dived inside for cover, in the process becoming sitting ducks for friendly fire. Like many other Pals battalions, they were more than decimated in just a few hours. 

The place looked sad and desolate in the mist. We parked next to an enormous pile of turnips. The farmers here tend to trustingly leave their root vegetable crops by the sides of roads. Since arriving here we've seen countless heaps of turnips and potatoes. 

Perhaps it was the weather - the mist, the watery sun - but this was the first place we've seen in France which seemed to buzz with an atmosphere. It was felt almost heavy with sadness, a sort of hopeless anger, which 100 years hasn't quite dissipated. Inside the crater, thousands of paper poppy leaves flapped in the early morning breeze, tossed in over the years, no doubt, by relatives of the hundreds of men who died here. 

If anything the mist became more intense as we drove along the single track roads towards the village of Serre. It was like some kind of dream sequence; a half-world of ghosts and daemons. Periodically a grey shape would loom out of the whiteness. Sometimes it would reveal itself as a monument or the tall cross of a British cemetery. Other times a farm building would appear instead. Here a tractor. There a car. The spiky maize crops which fill most of the flanders fields flashed past in silhouette on both sides of the road. 

Serre is the reason I'm here. This is where the majority of Pals regiments, including my men from Leeds, went over the top on 1st July, 1916. I'd studied the maps. I knew where their front line trench was. I knew what it looked like in 1916. I'd imagined what it might look like in 2013. As we parked up outside Serre cemetery number 2, and walked up the footpath towards the 3rd cemetery (where the Pals went "over the lid") all that remained was for me to process all the information I'd consumed and relate it to the bleached-out landscape which was confronting me. 

Standing on the edge of a field, staring up the hill towards the village of Serre (their destination on that fateful day) it immediately became clear that they didn't stand a hope in hell. You don't need to be a First World War general to realise it's absolutely nonsensical to attack up hill. My father became hugely angry. My mother became sad. Nathan experienced horror. I felt a mixture of all of the above. 

In a wood, which used to be four copses named after the apostles, there's a memorial park to all of the Pals battalions, many of whom were stationed in this part of the front line. The Accrington Pals have an enormous monument. The Sheffield Pals have a brick-built shed-like structure. The Barnsley Pals and the Bradford Pals are both represented with plaques, but no monument to the Leeds Pals exists. This makes me angry. Hugely angry. And it's something I WILL change if I achieve nothing else in my life. 

I took myself to the Queen's cemetery, a tiny little English cemetery in the middle of what would have been no-man's-land. It is here that Lieutenant Morris Bickersteth is buried, one of my favourite Pals, if such a thing is possible. Bickersteth kept a diary and wrote many letters to his parents, so it is through him that I have learned much about the way things were. I stood at his grave and read the letter he wrote to his parents "in the event of his death." In the letter he tells them that he doesn't fear death and that he'd be waiting for them and loving them as they read his letter. My mother cried. 

I sat on a bench and stared at a spider's web covered in a thousand tiny droplets of dew, which looked like beautiful jewels. Jewels, I guess, which mirrored the tears dripping down my cheeks.

As we drifted around, we'd periodically find ourselves in the middle of a guided tour, usually a British school group. One hears all sorts of snippets of conversation in these instances. Standing in the beautiful Luke Copse cemetery, for example, we heard the story of a group of Pals who'd been dug up and reinterred in one of the official cemeteries. When they were uncovered, it was discovered they'd been buried arm in arm; a whole group of men. Pals in both life and death.  

A curious thing happened at Serre cemetery number two. I'd taken the family in to see the graves of some more of the Leeds Pals. My Dad disappeared for a while to commune with the graves of men from the Warwickshire Regiment. My Dad is Warwickshire through and through (with the exception of a large dose of Welshness) and walked through the graves looking for people with familial names he recognised. 

Curiously, on our way through Northern France yesterday, my mother had turned to my Dad and asked him if he'd had a chance to look up one William Mabberley on the online army records. My dad had forgotten about it, but it seems my mother's Great Uncle, who was never really spoken about, had been in the army and was posted to India just before the First World War. The assumption was that he'd probably died during the course of the First World War. Mabberley is, of course, a somewhat unusual name.

Imagine our shock, therefore, when my father found the grave of a W Mabberley in one corner of the cemetery. He was part of the Warwickshire regiment. Surely, it wasn't possibly that we'd stumbled upon my mother's Great Uncle purely by chance? 

We typed W Mabberley into a military graves website search engine and were rather surprised to discover that only one W Mabberley had been killed in the First World War. He was, indeed, buried in Serre Cemetery Number Two, and the W stood for William. With the Warwickshire link, it is almost tantalisingly conceivable that this grave, which we found purely by chance, in one of many thousands of British cemeteries, could belong to my Great Great Uncle. How astonishing is that?

From Serre we travelled to Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland memorial. This is the spot where a huge number of Canadian troops lost their lives on July 1st, 1916. The trenches have been left almost exactly as they were during the war. Nature has taken her course, of course. The barbed wire and war detritus has long since decayed or been removed and the trenches themselves are now covered in grass. Yellow and cream butterflies drift in pairs across no-man's-land, birds sing charming songs from the poplar trees. It's all rather tranquil, but there's a strange kind of electricity floating around the place. My mother commented on it first. It gave her a strong sense of being at one with the universe. It made me want to cry! 

What has struck us all is the complete, or seeming complete lack of German war graves. They must be somewhere. Millions of Germans died in France. They were all given decent burials. There must have been huge numbers of relatives wanting to see their loved ones, but where did they go? Where DO they go? Where are their loved ones buried?  

After lunch we took ourselves to the Thiepval Memorial, which is to men who were registered missing during the Battle of the Somme. 72,000 men were never found. That's 72,000 men whose relatives waited in vain for their return. 

We watched a little film in the associated visitors' centre and they showed a roll call of photos of some of the men who never returned. Their images were accompanied by Elgar's Nimrod. Perhaps it was the music - when I hear Nimrod I instantly feel sad at the thought that I'll probably never  be able to write music of such astonishing beauty - but I think seeing the actual faces of those who went to war and simply disappeared  had a very profound effect on me. You could see their characters; the jokers, the intellectuals, the artistic ones. Men who, like our friend Ali's Great Grandfather, Richard Snodgrass, never fulfilled their potential. 

Back at the hotel, Nathan created mayhem with a group of Dutch tourists by knitting his Sanquhar scarf on the terrace. Surprisingly for Dutch people they couldn't speak a word of English, but they knew good knitting when they saw it, and everyone wanted to have their photo taken with him.. And it! 

We went into Albert for supper and found the place almost deserted. And on a Friday night? Where do the good folk of this town go of an evening? Plainly the answer is "somewhere else"! Perhaps they're all ghosts! 

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