Sunday, April 19, 2009

Connecting with the past on a visceral level

This photo of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery at Etaples on the north coast of France can’t even begin to convey the enormity of the site or the profound sadness that you feel when walking among the nearly11,000 graves. The middle and right grave at the front are those of a Canadian doctor and nurse killed in the air raid on the 1st Canadian General Hospital on May 19, 1918.

There are endless pockets of smaller cemeteries, especially near the battlefields. Neatly walled, lovingly maintained, they appear like a bizarre crop amid farmers’ fields. When you stroll through them, one thing strikes you immediately - most of the dead had barely had a chance at life, many still in their teens.

The CWGC website allows you to do a search on fallen Commonwealth soldiers, and pinpoint the exact location of a grave. Armed with that info, we visited my husband’s great-uncle’s grave at Dud Corner cemetery last year. He died at the age of 21 in the Battle of Loos in 1915. In the photo we have of him in his officer’s uniform, he looks heartbreakingly young.

These former battlefields lie poignantly silent, yet bid you to take a moment to reflect. They brought to mind the last verse in John McCrae’s poem, “The Anxious Dead”:

Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,

They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;

Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,

And in content may turn them to their sleep.

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