by TIM MATTHEWS
THE official Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials map of France and Belgium is a truly appalling document. Superimposed on a conventional Michelin touring map with its jaunty signs for golfclubs, country hotels and scenic views, is a sea of small purple dots marking the cemeteries which are the resting place of some million dead from two world wars.
Sheet 53, for example, covering the Arras and Cambrai district, marks well over 600 such sites: Thistle Dump and Serre Road, Knightsbridge, Hangard Wood, Dury Crucifix, Euston Road, Blighty Valley, Dartmoor, Luke Copse, Stump Road, Summit Trench, Manitoba, Railway Cutting, Rookery, Contalmaison Chateau, London, Devonshire, Dominion, Cuckoo Passage, Bulls Road, Gordon Dump and Waggon Road to name only a very few, It was over country such as this, "with a throat straining with sadness," that a character in Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" grieved. "This land here cost 20 lives a foot that summer . . . see that little stream — we could wall( to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backwards a few inches a day leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs . . ."
At Terlincthun British Cemetery in Wimille there are 3,327 graves, almost all of them of men who died in the nearby Base Camp Hospitals at Boulogne and Wimille. The autumn leaves are now being whipped off the trees which run down by the stone wall which forms the boundary of the cemetery; the grass is as green as an English cathedral close; the grey of the headstones set off by the colours of shrubs and plants from home.
Like many of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries, Terlinethun is being cared for by men who have chosen to stay behind in France, anonymously, with their friends.
"I came here first in 1940," one told me. "I never got back through Dunkirk, and stayed hidden here in Boulogne. As far as possible I try and make the cemeteries look like England, nice and mown and flowered like an English garden. Working here does make you reflect a lot upon the futility of war.
"All of these young chaps," the cemetery gar dener concluded, looking down the long, straight, silent lines, "hardly any of them reached their thirties and ninny of them were only in their 'teens."
This week, and every week, some 8,000 people — many of whom were our opponents in war — will be visiting the war graves in France. "In our experience," a War Graves official told roe, "the interest of young people is increasing.
"I think it's essential that we should continue to demonstrate to young people, who themselves have not known war, what the cost of even a 'conventional' war is in terms of young lives and the lines of whole families."
Of course, it is not only in France that our war dead lie. "The whole circuit of the earth is girdled with the graves of our dead," observed King George V on a visit to Terlincthun in 1922. "Never before in history have a people thus dedicated and maintained individual memorials to their fallen, and in the course of my pilgrimage I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war."
In an epitaph to an unknown soldier, W. H. Auden wrote: "To save your world you asked this man to die: "Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?"
It's an uncomfortable
question which demands the trying effort of a response on Remembrance Sunday. The truth of' history will one day be revealed to us in the Beatific Vision but, meanwhile, knowing that Charity is the key, we must ponder and reflect — yet, "with desolation is the world made desolate because there is none that thinketh in his heart" (Jer. xii 11). One of the greatest sins of modern times, echoed Pope Pius XI, is want of reflection.
Early in the first World War, just as the worst of the holocaust in France was beginning, Ronald Knox wrote a small book of meditations, "An Hour at the Front." It included some prayers which directly link us with those lying in the Gardens of Gethsemane around the world — prayers for "the untried whose hearts fail them at the moment of battle; that those who are tried by long waiting and suspense may have confidence and quietness . . for all in deadly sin on whom death may come suddenly . . for the bereaved, that God will keep them from the slightest yielding to that terrible despair in which man turns and curses God . . . for the sick, wounded and dying."
There are 23,000 burial grounds throughout the world, from Zeebrugge to Anzio, from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean, containing the graves or memorials to 1,695,000 Commonwealth dead — over 800 miles of gravestones.
Many people have written many things about those dead, but I still think there can be few things more moving that those simple, silent and austere lists printed in the margins of the Michelin maps:
"Bronfay Farm, BlangyTronville, Chili Trench, De Cusine Ravine, Dive Copse, Fifteen Ravine, Fosse No. 10, Guillemont Road, Hawthorn Ridge, High Tree, Inchy, Le Quesnal, Railway Hollow, St Patrick's, Mory Abbey, Owl Trench, Point 110 Old, Point 110 New, Tank, Unicorn, Uplands, Wellington, Windmill, Zouave Valley."
All, surely, food for thought and reflection. Requiescant in Pace.