Walking through Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland graveyard in Newry, Co Down on Monday, unmistakeable headstones marking war graves caught the eye. One of them was particularly perplexing; it is the sort of stone one finds on the Western Front, at the Somme or Flanders, where soldiers’ bodies were so blown to pieces, or had lain so long decaying, that they were beyond identification. Such stones carry the simple inscriptions, ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ at the top and, at the bottom ‘Known Unto God’. The churchyard in Newry has such a headstone.
How did an unidentified body come to be in Newry, particularly since the headstone carries a date, ‘3rd November 1916′? Amongst the trenches, where tens of thousands fell and where shellfire, mortar fire and mines butchered human bodies, to have an unknown body is readily understood, but how did it come to be in Newry? How can there be a date on the headstone if the soldier is unknown?
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website says there are ten war graves in the graveyard and simply notes that one is unidentified. No clue is offered as how it came to be there.
The war graves in Newry are scattered around the churchyard, they do not stand in countless ranks as in Belgium and France. Newry’s unknown soldier does not lie among his fallen comrades; he lies alone, remembered by someone who put a faded poppy cross on his grave sometime in the past.
The stone prompts a return to a sublime passage in Sebastian Faulks’ novel Charlotte Gray, a diary entry of Levade, a Catholic Jew living in Vichy France in 1942.
“No child born knows the world he is entering, and at the moment of his birth he is a stranger to his parents. When he dies, many years later, there may be regrets among those left behind that they never knew him better, but he is forgotten almost as soon as he dies because there is no time for others to puzzle out his life. After a few years he will be referred to once or twice by a grandchild, then by no one at all. Unknown at the moment of birth, unknown after death. This weight of solitude! A being unknown.
And yet, if I believe in God, I am known. On the tombs of the English soldiers, the ones too fragmented to have a name, I remember that they wrote ‘Known unto God’. By this they meant that here was a man, who did once have arms and legs and a father and a mother, but they could not find all the parts of him – least of all his name.
God will know me, even as I cannot know myself. If He created me, then He has lived with me. He knows the nature of my temptations and the manner of my failing. So I am not alone. I have for my companion the creator of the world.
At the hour of my death I would wish to be ‘known unto God’.”
May the man lying beneath the green grass of Co Down be known unto God.