On Tuesday morning, a group of us will be at Messines in Flanders. The day will mark the 94th anniversary of a son of our parish. The Island of Ireland Peace Park, with its round tower and commemorative stones, is a special place. Trawling through the archives, a piece written in 2003 emerged:
We sat on the grass in the park outside of Messines and ate our sandwiches finding shadow from the hot August sunshine. The cows in the adjoining field stood and watched, bemused. A local man walking his dog appeared from the other side of the round tower, perhaps he was wondering who might have arrived in the foreign car parked at the gates. “Bonjour, monsieur”, we greeted him. With a cheery wave he greeted us and went on his way. We felt that we were on our own territory, Belgian locals were welcome, but this was a place apart from its neighbourhood.
Three stone columns alongside the path to the round tower told the story in blunt terms –
36th (Ulster) Division 32,186 Killed Wounded Missing;
16th (Irish) Division 28,398 Killed Wounded Missing;
10th (Irish) Division 9, 363 Killed Wounded Missing.
Stone slabs laid into the grass record lines from various writers, including the following from Francis Ledwidge of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was to die in action in 1917:
It is too late now to retrieve
a fallen dream, too late to grieve
a name unmade, but not too late
to thank the gods for what is great;
a keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
is greater than a poet’s art.
and greater than a poet’s fame
a little grave that has no name.
Ledwidge struggles for some meaning, some significance, in the slaughter going on around him, bravely asserting that an unmarked grave is more important than fame as a writer. The irony is that it was only because he was a poet that Ledwidge’s name is recalled at Messines, while countless thousand other names are forgotten.
It was hard to find sense or meaning on the Western Front. We travelled south into France, to the Somme. The Somme was not a place to try to fight a battle, great rolling hills separated by deep wooded valleys. Attackers had little hope of making progress across ground that could be raked by entrenched machine guns on neighbouring hill tops. At Thiepval it is hard now to capture a sense of the horror of July 1916. I had promised myself I would walk up to the graves of the Goodwin brothers, young men from my church whose graves are in Mill Road Cemetery, but the temperature was approaching 100 degrees and we were running behind our schedule – next time I’ll find them.
It is important to remember individuals, it is important to remember names, because when we remember people and not numbers we retain a sense of human dignity and we retain a sense of the horror of war.
Eight years on, I realize I should probably not have spoken in French to the man – it is a Flemish area.
I returned to Messines in 2009, and went to the graves of the Goodwin brothers from my old parish, and made the same journey again last year, and now this year – and each time the effect of Flanders and the Somme is as profound as the first time.