On a day when all manner of people turned out to publicly and conspicuously commemorate ANZAC Day, marching, singing, praying, dressing up in uniform, waving flags, wearing medals, beating drums, playing trumpets, bagpipes and horns, then gathering noisily with family and regiment mates in watering-holes from Gallipoli to Goondiwindi to Greymouth, I dug deep to gather my thoughts of war and the fallen in my garden.
I thought of the solace and comfort that trees and plants give to the families and loved ones of those buried in war graves all over the world and the peace and beauty they lend to the final resting place of the thousands of young servicemen and servicewomen lying there. The calm and serenity of the gorgeous parks and vistas that organisations like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission work so splendidly to maintain, are an abject contrast to their former life as a battlefield where those who lie there now met a noisy and messy death.
There are tens of thousands of Australians buried in marked and unmarked graves in 82 countries. Many thousands more of all nationalities lie in foreign lands bearing a headstone that may or may not identify them.
The war cemeteries’ groomed and majestic walkways, the silence except for the twitter of birds, rustle of branches and whispers of visitors evoke a solemnity that is both soothing and stark. You can be mesmerised, even charmed, by the neat and precise rows, crisp white headstones, carpets of lush lawn…..until jolted by the realisation that you are walking on a huge waste of young lives. So many mere boys who for all their dignified and honoured resting place, were robbed of years of feeling the sun on their face, the wind at their back and their family’s loving arms to grow old in.
The sharply manicured grass ways at Varennes Cemetery, France are softened by the delicate pink roses, tendered lovingly to almost year-round bloom.
I hope the bright scattering cherry blooms at Bordon Military Cemetery, Hampshire are a balm for the families of the young Australians, Canadians and South Africans buried there.
Fallen World War II German soldiers and internees are honoured on British soil at the lovely Cannock Chase Cemetery, Staffordshire. The shadows that fall across the paths to their graves carry the patterns of lovely beech and oak branches, their reflective shade contrasting to the bright lights of so many lives forever dimmed.
The serene and beautiful wooded park of Bedford House Cemetery, near Ypres, in Belgium has a grace and distinctive feel, enhanced by the bright red geraniums among the tombstones.
Perhaps the most poignant and sombre is the mass grave at Langemark, in the Flanders region of Belgium where 24,900 German soldiers lie in a mass grave, known as the ‘Comrades Grave’. More than 7000 of these are unknown. Most of them were inexperienced German infantry who perished in the first futile battle at Ypres against the British and French in World War I. Majestic oak trees line the site, standing guard over the fallen and a rose garden thrives there. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, enhanced by the German choice of black granite for headstones, in contrast to the Allies’ choice of white marble.
Touching addition are four slightly larger than life size shadowy bronze figures, sculpted by Emil Krieger, who says he was inspired by a picture of grieving soldiers at the graveside of a comrade. The four stand eerily at attention, and silhouetted against the countryside, make a memorable impact on visitors.
And to demonstrate just how big a part the trees and their spread and shade play in the ambience of all these solemn sites, the 60 distinctive spreading hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) trees were removed four years ago at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery, France, to devastating effect. The rows of 81-year old trees were dying, so were taken out in 2009.
However, their replacements are developing well for the town’s battle centenary commemorations in 2018.
Walking under the shadows and past the lovely plantings, to read the epitaphs is almost too sad and painful, but one on the grave of Private John Thomas Holdroyd is worded to speak succinctly for all the ache left in hearts back home:
“Too far away thy grave to see
But not too far to think of thee.”
[Photographs reproduced with the kind permission of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission]