Friday, 21 December 2018

I Am Grateful

Yesterday, I visited Ypres in Belgium. I was travelling back from Antwerp with my sons, and Ypres was only a little out of our way to Calais, the Eurotunnel and home. Each time I make this journey - and I have made it four times in the past eighteen months - I cross over what was the Western Front, the main theatre of battle in the First World War.

It's a flat landscape - unremarkable in many ways - and on a wet December day it was easy to imagine the mud and the cold of winters spent dug in to trenches a hundred years ago.

There was something about duty in this visit - something about my sense that showing my sons this part of history is part of my parental role. When I was a child, this was history I could almost touch, hear and see: in the hand of my Grandfather, who served in the Canadian Air Force; in the Remembrance Day clank of the medals of 'Pop' Gayford - the verger at my father's church; and in the rolled up trouser leg of the man I saw on my walk to school each morning who (my mother explained to me) had had his leg blown off by a shell.

After Ypres (which you must go to if you haven't yet) we stopped off at the Hooge Crater Cemetery. I parked the car at the side of the road and we walked back towards the cemetery gates. The wind had picked up, blowing the rain into our faces. We walked through the iron gates. There was no one else there.

The first of the white graves read: 'Four Soldiers of the Great War'. The one next to it, Five. Those numbers struck a deep note of sorrow. Earlier we'd read names on the Menin Gate, discovered namesakes, wondered at the sheer scale of the monument. But these nameless graves - Four and Five - what those numbers represent, what they must mean ...  this and something about the beauty of the white stone and the careful placing of the graves, the diligence with which they are kept - these things brought tears to my eyes.

I went back to the car to get my camera and coming back, saw my sons silhouetted at the bottom of the cemetery, so alive, so full of hope and energy, and coming home for Christmas.