Some of you may recall that back in 2011 a group of us (Team Edward Thomas) read Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis and then shared thoughts about the book on here, and for anyone who is interested the posts are gathered here. It was a wonderful shared reading experience that also included a meet-up in London to visit the Faber archive followed by tea at the Covent Garden Hotel with Matthew Hollis. Fran rounded off the project with a visit to Edward Thomas's grave in France on behalf of us all, and today, on the centenary of his death in World War I, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit that original post and Fran's incredibly moving account.
Agny Military Cemetery ~ a visit by Fran September 19th 2011
Whilst on a road trip to relatives in France recently I was able to visit Agny Military Cemetery. Arras is a short way off the main A26 road from Calais, and with the aid of local maps I had the cemetery pin pointed, and the route written down. Although I had looked at the area on Google Earth and noted it's proximity to the road into Arras it never occurred to me there would not be an entrance gate in off the road. Spotting a signpost by a wall we stopped and discovered the small footpath seen in the photo. Of course it was then I realised that this is a WW1 cemetery so no longer used. There is no need for an entrance road.
I made my way along the backs of gardens, where cosmos flowered, tomatoes and courgettes grew and children played. Two stone pillars mark the entrance, and in front of me were six long rows of identical white stones, a cross halfway up one side and three short rows by the hedges. As with all cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth War Graves commission it was immaculately kept. Flame red roses still bloomed amongst the well tended graves, and on all sides it was surrounded by large trees.
Throughout my visit I was aware of the wind in the leaves, a gentle, soothing sound. Finding row C, grave 43 took no time for it is close to the entrance. I stood in front of Edward Thomas' grave. Like some of the others it bears his rank, name, regiment and the date of death. Right at the bottom, half obscured by the plants is engraved "POET".
I have seen the house where he was born, those he grew up in and the three in Steep he lived in with Helen. Now I stood at his final resting place. All I have read of this summer about this talented yet enigmatic man ended here. So far from home, from loved ones, from his beloved English and Welsh countryside yet this is quiet corner in France now; only trees, birdsong and wind here. He may have liked the solitude, I doubt he found any when here in 1917.
Looking around I noticed two large cherry trees planted near the entrance. Iwondered is their blossom white? Does it fall like snowflakes across the grass and headstones each spring? It brought to mind "Cherry Trees" written in May 1916
The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.
The day before we left for France I had gathered some rosemary from my garden along with marjoram, to lay on the grave as a tribute from the Adlestrop group . Rosemary for remembrance and the marjoram I chose as I knew it grew close to ET's memorial stone up on Shoulder of Mutton Hill in Hampshire. I had written out the last three verses of "Roads" to lay with the flowers.
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living, but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.
These I left on his headstone on behalf of us all.
I think I speak for everyone when I say how much I have learned reading Matthew Hollis' book, and the pleasures enjoyed on all the trails I have followed on from it. I have come to like the crisp, clean lines of verse which manage to convey so much, sometimes in not many words.
Turning back to the entrance I signed the visitor's book and photographed the entry for Edward Thomas for you all to see.
I then spent some time looking at the rest of the headstones. There are 413 burials here, and it did not take long for me to realise probably less than half had a name on them. So many simply read; "A Soldier of the Great War".
Some had a regiment added, but too many are simply unknown. I am not able to fully comprehend the horror of the trenches yet seeing row upon row of those who left no name has led me to have some awareness of the enormity of loss across Europe during 1914-1918. Agny cemetery is just one of so many all over this area. We passed at least another six on the road taken that day.
Then away we drove passing signposts with names I had read of in Edward Thomas' War Diary; Dainville, Mendicourt, Achicourt, Doullens. I was reminded of a description of the area Edward had written about in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon:
"This is a fine hilly country with trees on the roads and in a few woods. The
villages lie along the slopes above the streams, with tiled roofs and mud in
brick walls, and churches with towers and short spires something like
Sussex…...there are hardly any hedges".
The countryside around Arras is little changed today.