We walked in Flanders fields today, standing at the dressing station where Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae had worked as a surgeon, walking the rows of graves of those who had not lived to tell the tale. The graves of poet soldiers Francis Ledwidge and Hedd Wynn seemed to mark the sharp contrast between the gentleness of their craft and the brutality of their adopted trade – neither need have been in the trenches, Ledwidge coming from a country where there was no conscription and Hedd Wynn coming from a farm where he might readily have claimed immunity of service as a member of a reserved occupation. Yet they chose soldiering and died for their choice.
As futile as their sacrifice seems now, their lives, and the lives of all the Fallen, have a significance in the shaping of the history of our world. Even the humblest is commemorated amongst shining white stones in French cemeteries, on war memorials dotted around these islands, on burnished brass plaques set into church walls that prompt solemn obeisance each November.
The ordinary private soldiers, the countless thousands of them, were men whose lives were lived with purpose, however misguided we believe that purpose to have been.
I remembering once pondering how significant had been their lives compared with the inconsequential lives of most people today. Driving along a street, a black BMW convertible sports car had come up behind me, revving impatiently as if to suggest that no-one should have the effrontery to drive ahead of this young man in his sharp suit and wrap around sun glasses, who obviously thought very highly of himself.
Compared to the soldiers on the Western Front, his seemed a life entirely without significance. All his money would never buy remembrance; all the deals in the world would never bind him to the hearts of a nation as did the simple actions of those soldiers.
Francis Ledwidge recognized that there was something in the lives of those soldiers that would write their names in history. A soldier’s heart was greater than any human fame:
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.
What of the young man in his BMW? If his life was no more than these appearances, then what was in his heart? Was there anything whatsoever that would match the significance of the private soldier? The mud and slaughter in its pointlessness and horror somehow adds to the dignity of the Fallen; a dignity that does not come with a suit or a credit card.