Sunday, 10 September 2017

Places of Beauty and Peace

I was reminded the other day that PJ Kavanagh died two years ago in August. I used to love his pieces in the Spectator - wise, meditative essays. What I hadn't realised was that he had had another life, as a performer on television programmes with David Frost! (My allowance of exclamation marks for 2017, used up right there, but in a worthy cause, I think.)

Having recalled him, I decided I wanted to read some of Kavanagh's prose writing and, after a quick search on Abebooks, I found a book called People and Places in which some of the columns Kavanagh wrote between 1975 and 1987 had been collected. I received it today and found it included an essay about Ivor Gurney and naming, which contains a lovely section about the Commonwealth War Graves that have been established all across the Western Front since the First World War.

Over the last three years, while living in Belgium, I have spent quite a lot of time in CWG graveyards in Flanders, quite often at grave rededications. These happen when patient forensic work results in the identification of a soldier whose tombstone hitherto was marked 'Known unto God'. Kavanagh identifies the important role the Commonwealth War Graves play in reasserting  'the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting' and it is moving to know that this task is still considered important.

The essay, written in 1982, starts with a visit Kavanagh makes to the places that Ivor Gurney mentions in his poetry. Then Kavanagh discovers the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries:

"But all the time, slowly at first, then with increasing speed and force, it is borne in upon one that something has happened since he [Gurney] was there, something almost as enormous as what he experienced. At Aveluy there is a small graveyard of soldiers, surprisingly pretty; at Laventie there is another, and then you realise that at almost every bend in the road, hidden in cornfields, in orchards, in copses, are these small cemeteries, each prettier than the last - two thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven of them in France alone - and in each is the row of identical, well-designed headstones, sometimes no more than twenty and never too many, so that the mind is not overwhelmed, and on each of these headstones is a name...

To someone who has not come across these little cemeteries before the effect is almost indescribable; they are intimate, personal, the way Gurney's poems are. Of course I knew there were war cemeteries on the Somme but I imagined them terrible, impersonal places, with monuments. But the whole of this part of France is subtly and almost unnoticeably a graveyard and the graveyards are all English gardens, with roses and dogwood and prunus trees. That is, the Commonwealth cemeteries are. The German ones, with their tens of thousands of black iron crosses in long rows, and no flowers, give a different impression. It could be argued that they are more appropriate to the carnage they mark. What is sure is that the little British [and Empire] ones have become places of beauty and peace. As a reassertion of the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting, they could hardly be bettered. They have the same insistence on the significance of each separate human personality that is in Gurney's poetry. Possibly he never knew of them.

They are so well and expensively kept, by hundreds of gardeners, that they are a story in themselves. The hero is a man called Fabian Ware, who began recording individual, hastily dug graves during the war. He could have had little idea of the magnitude of the task ahead of him. After many fights with officialdom and public opinion ('Why spend money on the dead?' or 'Bring them back home', or, worst of all 'How could an Office and a Private have the same design of headstone?'), he seems to have won all his battles and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up, each member-country paying a share, according to the number of their losses.

After the war, teams of specially trained gardeners, "The Flying Circus", many of them ex- servicemen, toured the carnage, gathering scattered graveyards together, keeping them as near the place where the men had died as they could. Some of the ground had been fought over so often that identification was no longer possible. In which case 'Known unto God' is on the stone, a phrase contributed by Rudyard Kipling, whose own son had disappeared in this way. In some cases the sons of these original gardeners continue the work and, in the case of James MacDonald, whom we met tending the graves at Aveluy, looking entirely French in his beret, the son of one of the original gardeners (who himself fought on the Somme) is followed by his son: three generations.

In each cemetery is a book with the name of every soldier known to be there, his parents' names and his address; also a book for the remarks of visitors. The French comments are oddly French - 'Très bien entretenu', 'Endroit reposant et sage'. The British ones vary from the eloquent 'Humbled' and the conventional, though doubtless deeply felt 'They shall not be forgotten' to 'The Old Lie, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria mori' (itself a quotation from Gurney's fellow war poet Wilfred Owen). Well - yes. But these beautifully tended English gardens do not fill one with indignation, not exactly. Who is there to blame? The politicians, the generals, seem pitifully small when compared to this vast fact, made so human and particular here. God? It was not God that invented the machine-gun. And in his only reported appearance he recommended love. These cemeteries seem a humble, and almost infinitely laborious, attempt to put a known face on a nightmare."


  1. "Officers and privates": if you visit the cathedrals of France or Belgium, you may find the lists of the war dead broken out by officers, NCOs, and private soldiers; and I think that in the Strasbourg cathedral the monument to the US dead of WW II mentions each grade separately. I assume that this has to do with the French military vocabulary. It is any case less obnoxious to my eye than the lists of WW I dead one can find not far from here that list the deceased not by rank but by race.

    1. I think the Menin Gate may list by rank as well. I will check when I'm there next week. Your final observation shocks me.

  2. The county courthouse next to which that monument stands is probably half an hour away in light traffic, and I'm not sure that there isn't another such monument within twenty miles. By WW II the first county had learned better, or at least learned discretion.