Reminders and Memorials

I have a thing about war memorials.

They for me represent more than just the physical sculpture, more than just names, of wars gone by and the dead. They represent an emotion, feelings – more than the expected remembrance but a realisation of consequence, of respecting the individual more than the outcome or the event.

Each memorial differs just slightly in specific location, in site, in design. Celtic crosses are beloved, as are the simple cross on hexagonal base. Granite and marble, sandstone or glass. They are often worth a study or simple assessment.

You would have to imagine the vicar or priest, the archbishop or dignitary, the MP or relatives of the departed gathered around in a smaller or lesser throng of committed local citizens when it was put in situ. And then to perceive of the many years of coming and going, of wreaths, flowers, a passing nod, a removal of cap or a falling tear.
Across the land in city or in high peaks, these monuments of recognition stand year on year.

A lesson in admiration for me; in commitment, in durability in time.

An acknowledgement by the living for the dead, and a enduring reminder for the living by the dead.

You returned; I did not.

From Llandudno to Mametz and back again…

As fingers were pointed and Germany was made to pay at war’s end, rebuilding and a renewal of living needed to take place. None more so than in the towns and villages obliterated by four years of shell fire, tanks, machine gun and simple destruction.

In 1920 the British League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France was formed to identify British towns and cities that could adopt a town or village of northern France that had been deeply scarred by the war. Often these pairings would be down to the local connections developed by the soldiers who failed to return after the close of the Great War; the little cemeteries a blight on the British sub-conscious. But still some merely adopted by British towns and cities for a less oblique association, these places seemed so familiar to the men and women of the conflict which now continued in the aftermath.

The Battle of Mametz Wood is echoed in the green trees that now grows in the remains of what was Mametz Wood. The events of the battle that began on the 7th July 1916 during the First World War, the Great War were to take place in the largest wood that stood on the Somme frontline – Mametz Wood – a mile wide and a mile deep of thick undergrowth and woodland. By the first phase of World War One, the wood was defended by the Lehr regiment of Prussian guard, trenches, mortars and machine guns.

The 38th Division of the British Army was made up of several Welsh regiments including the South Wales Borderers, Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Welsh Regiment. Like many of Kitchener’s soldiers, they were poorly-trained, ill-equipped individuals who had enlisted to help the country. But many had stood when Kitchener called for arms.

Ordered by their British generals to take the wood in hours, the battle lasted five days. It was afterwards described by the poet Robert Graves who fought there as being “full of dead Prussian guards, big men and dead Royal Welch Fusilliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.”

There were 400 casualties on the first day.  Despite accusutions of failures, by the end the division had pushed the German forces back to their second line of trenches. The cost was staggering. The Welsh Division had lost 46 officers, 556 other ranks but the true cost was in the missing – in total 3993 men were dead or missing. German losses were similar in number.

The place bears the invisible scars of that battle. It is the young men who lie in the silent wooded cemeteries from those Welsh valleys. The Welsh boys who volunteered from mining towns and farming families showed their bravery in those days, the PALS regiments from Swansea and Cardiff who fought the finest trained of the German army with little training or experience.

The Tregaskis brothers – Arthur and Leonard who had emigrated to Canada returned to fight. They are buried side by side at Mametz – one brother had been shot in the head, the other was killed trying to rescue him. Corporal Frederick Roberts was a miner from Senghenydd who had escaped death in a mining disaster which had killed 439 of his colleagues in 1913 but died on his wounds on July 10th.

Brothers Henry and Charles Morgan volunteered in 1914, workers from the Blaenavon Iron and Steelworks, they died on the same day at the Battle of Mametz Wood. Thomas and Henry Hardwidge, brothers from a colliery at Ferndale also died at Mametz. Tom was fatally wounded and when his brother went to rescue him, he was shot by a German sniper.

War is often seen as futile. The Germans took back Mametz Wood a few weeks later but Mametz Wood remains as a place of immense tranquillity and mournful sadness. Birdsong has replaced the machine gun fire, but even after a century, sometimes you might think you see the ghosts.

Mametz Wood can be seen to be just another battle of the war but it deserves to be considered. The Welsh boys deserve that. And from that back to Llandudno again, for the 38th Welch Division of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was formed there in November 1914.

The village of Mametz on the Somme was adopted by Llandudno to be their ‘God Parent’ and the people of Llandudno would generously support the French village of Mametz into the 1920s; many of those supporters had been survivors of the conflict that had devastated the village in the war. The Red Dragon that sits so splendidly at Mametz a symbol of sacrifice and survival. Those who had lived would not forget but would take their own part in the rebuilding of that which had been destroyed.

So it says: Great deeds never die

How many times have I seen this on a memorial, on a grave stone or in a memorium?

Great deeds never die.

Written about the dead but never truer than in consequence to the survivors of the first great war.

Great deeds never die.

Not all men died. Their deeds did not disappear. Their deeds were carried with them onwards in life. But seemingly the deeds of the living were not as great as the deeds of the dead.

Does the ultimate sacrifice need to take place before the acts of the living be labelled as great?

Great deeds never die. No – they live on in the minds of those who survived. To haunt? To remind? To seek a kind of fatalistic karmic vengeance?

Great deeds never die. Survivors of wars need no praise. But maybe also not seen in the same light as the dead.

When Tommy came home…

Those three dots mean everything…

Just what happened.

For this is about the War – the Great War. An ironic and bizarre term. It seemed so easy to be dead in World War One; so easy. But I’ve always wondered about the afterwards, the what happens next. What happens after the door closes? What happens when the light goes out? What happens when some stop remembering?

So titled for its consequences, World War One affected the world. But for me, it was not the generalisms, but the individuals and the specifics – seeing the man or woman for who they were not for what they were. Maybe more so, that they lived when so many others died. We commemorate the dead but not the living. In what life does that make sense?
So this is in part my meanderings and research through the lives of the soldiers who did return; when Tommy came home.

For this is about them.

For after tragedy, the world continued to turn. But what happened? What was life like when men and women returned to normal life just wanting to get on with the living and forget the dead? What was their life like when pockmarked and riven they returned to a fragile and difficult society fraught in economic, political and social fissures? And indeed could they forget the four years of conflict when its impact would hold such a large shadow over their own lives for years sometimes decades to come? For some of our Tommies, the war would suffer casualties long after the Armistice had passed.

When Tommy came home …