The words of John William Street's poem, The Soldier's Cemetery struck me as doubly poignant once I'd turned the final page of Gavin Stamp's excellent book in the Profile 'Wonders of the World' series, The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Plus I'll confess right now that I knew next to nothing about anything to do with it all beyond the existence of memorials and cemeteries various, the fact that there is a daily ceremony at something called the Menin Gate and that it's all looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
So the first surprise was that a key player in the whole project was Sir Edwin Lutyens who, as well as designing country houses and getting Gertrude Jekyll in to do the gardens, was also the architect responsible for the Thiepval Memorial, that 'tower of arches' on the Somme as well as the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
Sir Edwin by all accounts a garrulous and persistent talker who drove many people up his walls and across his ceilings with his bluff and incessant wit and humour,
'his good spirits depress everybody - and one sees people getting quietly out of his way simply because the effort of sympathetic laughter is overwhelming'
But we must surely forgive all faults in a man with such a unique architectural eye and a talent for visualising structures in three dimensional form as well as 'in the round' whilst still retaining classical sentiments. Put to the test whilst designing the Viceroy's House at New Delhi, Lutyens stuck to his principles and I can almost hear him saying it,
'One cannot tinker with the round arch. God did not make the Eastern rainbow pointed to show his wide sympathies'.
Fearing cohorts of winged angel statues sprouting bigger and better wings than the next grave in the post-WW I cemeteries, the War Graves Commission was an early feature of the Great War. It quickly dawned that this was going to be no ordinary carnage, there were going to be huge fatalities and the unmarked mass-grave mistakes of the Boer War must not be repeated. Early decisions were taken and adhered to, all casualties of the war would be buried more or less where they fell, there would be no exhumations and removal of bodies to quiet corners of English churchyards by the more well-to do families. It was agreed that the officers would wish to rest with their men and likewise there would be no distinction between rank when the graves were finally marked with identical headstones. The cemeteries and memorials themselves thus became a map of the war, and at a total cost of £8,150,000 it's worth remembering that the Battle of Passchendaele alone cost £22 million.
Shocking then must have been the gradual discovery, having agreed that every single soldier who had died would have a memorial, that there were over 500,000 bodies missing, whereabouts unknown, theirs was indeed 'an unlucky and ill-used generation.'
The Thiepval Memorial recalls the names of 73,000 British and South African soldiers who were killed on the Somme but have no known graves and it keeps watch over 'this landscape touched with infinite sadness' , a sentinel illuminating what felt like two diametrically opposed abstract concepts as I read.
The uncertainty, identified by English architect Roderick Gradidge,
'The mind has difficulty in deciding exactly what type of building Thiepval really is. The triumphal arch becomes a memorial cenotaph in one view, in another it is a solid memorial tower, its base pierced by arches in all directions.'
But then the certainty coded within these walls and arches, a certainty that feels strangely like a sure and certain hope, in fact oddly uplifting,
'There is certainly no triumph, no victory in the Thiepval arch, although there is no humility either; it does not glorify war, but dignifies the wasteful sacrifice of young men by remembering them in a stupendous, breathtaking architectural gesture...it invites contemplation, but although it is assertive and proud it does not hector.'
So how exactly do you make a book about a memorial interesting to read?
Well, Gavin Stamp has excelled in his descriptions and his arguments and there is much in this book to feel humble about. His impassioned polemic about the flawed reasoning for this war makes for tough reading, even if you know it already which I think most of us do by now,
'One of the least attractive aspects of the English is our refusal - manifest facts to the contrary - ever to admit we were wrong, or ever behaved in anything but an upright, heroic, honourable way, while former enemies are still demonised.'
I'm not sure that's a purely English trait within the international community (or perhaps I'm just trying not to kick us when we're already a bit credit-crunched ) but Gavin Stamp's intelligent, evidence-based position about the likes of the 'repellent figure of General Haig' and the 'lions led by donkeys' makes a revisionist interpretation of the Great War seem an essential chapter to be written in our history. This is one of those important books and I feel privileged to have read it and greatly enlightened as a result.
Another outstanding success for the Wonders of the World series here at dovegreyreader scribbles, so once I've been to Stonehenge I want to go to the The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, the question is do I really want to go via St Pancras Station?
Well I have no choice, that's where Eurostar begins, yes it's St Pancras Station next.