Graves of ‘Pals’, and monuments to the missing
A pilgrimage to the cemeteries maintained by the CommonWealth War Graves Commission on the Western France is still a powerful emotional experience for many.
Especially at the Somme where 20,000 young men died on a single day, July 1, 1916, many from the Pals battalions: one can see the graves of row after row of young men who often grew up together, enlisted together, fought together and finally died together.
What about the missing? Those whose bodies were destroyed by the heavy guns, or sunk in the glutinous mud of the shell-pocked battlefields, or buried in collapsed trenches or underground bunkers?
Memorials, again maintained by the commission, abound in the battlefield areas. The best known is the Menin Gate in Ypres.
This massive edifice sits astride the road from Menin as it enters the town. It contains the names of 55,000 soldiers missing in the Ypres Salient between August 1914 and August 1917. Names of those from Britain and Ireland, from Australia, South Africa; names of Indian sepoys, of Pathan tribesmen and six soldiers from the West Indies.
The names of the missing from the Ypres Salient from August 1917 until to the end of the war are contained on plaques at the back of the nearby Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest British military cemetery in the world, with almost 12,000 graves. There are a further 35,000 names of the missing here.
And as for the Somme, there is the Thiepval Memorial to more than 73,000 missing soldiers who died in this region’s mighty battles of 1916 and 1918. This one is simply overpowering, rising somewhat incongruously hundreds of feet above this lovely countryside.