Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Restraint

I can't say I'm exactly looking forward to next year's epic celebrations of the centenary of the Kaiser War (expect much reverential sentimentality, peddling of hoary myths, Oh What a Lovely War, endless repeats of the last episode of Blackadder - or am I being unfair? Probably). However, one very good thing that will come of the centenary is that, ahead of it, the war cemeteries are being refurbished, with every stone in need of restoration being repaired and recarved. The work of the (then) Empire War Graves Commission after the Great War, as embodied in those amazing cemeteries and memorials, is in its way one of the Supreme Works of the Human Spirit - just as what it memorialises is one of the supreme works of human self-destruction. Anyone who has visited the vast cemeteries of Flanders, or stumbled on one of the smaller ones that are dotted about the countryside, will know what an emotional punch they pack by virtue of their restraint and reticence, the classic plainness of the stones, their simple inscriptions, their uniformity across all ranks, levelled by death. And of course, in the larger cemeteries - and at such extraordinary memorials as the Menin Gate at Ypres - the sheer scale of the slaughter they commemorate. The supreme irony is that the work of memorialising the dead of the First War was not completed until 1938 - just in time for the Second, as the bloodiest of centuries lurched on its way. Lest we forget indeed...
Talking of restraint, here is a short and simple poem by Edward Thomas (buried in the Agny Military Cemetery, Row C, Grave 43) -

A Private
This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
"At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush," said he,
"I slept." None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover', a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France - that, too, he secret keeps.

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