Op uw gezondheid!

An email arrives with the ultimate in offers-I-can’t-refuse. Would you like to review our beer?

Well, I suppose, if you insist…

Stella Artois (for it is they) is a full-flavoured premium lager with a hoppy aroma and a hint of fruitiness. It has been brewed in Leuven, Belgium since the mid-1920s but the history of Stella Artois begins with a brewery called Den Horen that dates back to 1366. In 1717, master brewer Sebastian Artois purchased the brewery and changed its name to Artois. Stella Artois was first introduced as a Christmas beer (‘stella’ is Latin for star) in 1926.

Now at this point my interest quickened. Because, my new book ‘Known unto God’ is set in Belgium during the aftermath of World War One and focusses on the lives of a small group of Tommies given the grisly duty of clearing the battlefields and burying bodies. Thirsty work, of course. And the characters all quench their thirsts (with Belgian beer) at every opportunity. (They certainly had the money – British soldiers who volunteered for such unpleasant duties were paid an extra 2/6 a day.)

Here’s a short extract:

Françoise pouts and flaps the tea towel she is holding at the counter. The bar is quiet. Jack turns and squints through his tobacco smoke at the yellowing, varnished posters – cracked and blistered with age – that cover gaps in the walls where panels of the corrugated iron have been joined together. Music hall acts, he assumes. For long-expired performances.
‘You don’t hate them, do you?’ Françoise asks at last. ‘You don’t hate the Germans, not like we do.’
‘Why should I hate them?’
‘You should hate them for what they did,’ she says. ‘For who they are. For what they will become.
Jack pushes back his cap and scratches his head. ‘I can’t… I don’t hate anybody.’
‘But they would have killed you, Jacques! They killed your friends. These men you dig up every day and bury…’
‘It were war, lass.’ Even though it is all that Jack can think to say, he knows it’s not much of an answer. 
Françoise stops, hands by her side, and looks at him. But she isn’t smiling. ‘Was it was war when our women and children were raped and killed in 1914? Was it war when the Germans shot unarmed men simply because they were Belgians in their own country, living their lives peacefully as they had always wanted to?’
‘Aye, well…’
But she is angry now and in no mood for ‘aye, well’ anymore. Jack turns away. Again the tattered music hall bills catch his eye. He wonders why he’s never noticed them before. And alongside the gay variety notices there are others – a picture of a plump, apron-wearing artisan holding a brimming mug of Vermeulen beer in front of the ruined campanile – demandez les Bieres de la Brasseries… Vraagt de Bieren der Brouwerij, the slogan reads. Jack brings the mug he’s holding to his lips. 
‘Maybe it was ‘war’ to you,’ Françoise is saying, watching him, watching his eyes over the rim of his tankard.
Remember Belgium – Enlist Today! Another slogan. And below the call to action is a smart Tommy standing to attention. Remember Scarborough! That is the recruiting poster Jack sees when he shuts his eyes. He remembers the bombardment, too – remembers the ripple of fear that had spread through the village at the thought that the Germans were poised for an invasion. Here, that fear was a reality. No wonder they – no wonder she – feels such hostility. He can see it clearly in the figure of a blond-haired girl being dragged away by a thick set, square-jawed, Pickelhauber-ed Hun and in the angry fires of the burning Belgian city whose red flames turn the figures into silhouettes.
‘You had a gun,’ she says following his gaze. ‘But what about the poor civilians of Andanne and Seilles, Tamines and Dinant?’
‘Aye, well…’ He sighs.
‘Aye well, you say. Aye well, aye well. It is easy for you to say. That is all you ever say – aye, well. Well I will tell you something. On August 25th 1914 at Louvain, the German army set fire to the town, destroying the medieval library and all its ancient books, killing hundreds of innocent people and forcing thousands – almost the whole population of the town – to leave their homes. And for what? There were no franc-tireurs there. It was a seat of learning, a place of art and culture and the Germans looted and destroyed it all.’
‘Franc – what, love?’
‘Franc-tireurs. Those suspected of resisting the enemy.’
‘And did they?’
‘Did they what?’ she asks, tears now welling in her dark eyes.
‘Did they resist the enemy?’
She looks at him. A cold, hard look. A mixture of hostility and guilt. ‘What do you think?’ she replies.

Ypres, at the time, was little more than a cross between a building site and a refugee camp. Comforts were few and far between but the beer was flowing and some of the first buildings to be constructed on the ruins of the city were estaminets – cafes, bars, brasseries – where both locals and Allied troops could relax and eat and drink. Not that they’d have been drinking Stella. Not for a few more years, at any rate.

So they’d have missed out on that deliciously hoppy aroma with a hint of fruitiness and clean bitterness  balanced with the malt flavour  – the high quality ‘assured through a superior brewing process and by using the finest ingredients available.’

But I’m not. I’m raising a glass (and a rather nice Stella Chalice it is, too) to the men who served their King and Country first with a rifle, then with a shovel.

They deserve it.

Stella Chalice

Cheers! Or as Jack might have said, Op uw gezondheid!


Rudyard Kipling

Today, October 28th, is the anniversary of Rudyard Kipling’s birth. Although celebrated as a poet of Empire and loved across the generations for his Jungle Book stories, Kipling is perhaps less well-known for his long and dedicated service to the War Graves Commission. Kipling may have wielded a pen rather than a shovel but his contribution is no less worthy of celebration on a blog dedicated to the big clear up, the burials, the interments and memorials. Indeed, he was instrumental behind the establishment of many war memorials; his words (or those chosen by him) appear in almost all of the iconic war cemeteries, as well as the title of this blog.

Much more, of course, there is his own personal connection, suffering, loss. For having been instrumental in securing his only son, Jack Kipling, a commission in the Irish Guards (in spite of previous medicals classifying him as unfit for military service on account of poor eyesight) Kipling jnr was killed during the battle of Loos in September 1915.

Jack Kipling’s body was never found (although there has been a recent attempt to identify a body previously known only ‘to God’ in Dud Corner cemetery as his). Rudyard and his wife Carrie spent many agonising weeks and months waiting for news, desperately hoping that their son was still alive, a prisoner maybe. When the inevitability of his death was accepted, they searched – in vain – for a body. Kipling became a well-known figure on the Western Front scouring the names on tin plates nailed to rough, wooden crosses, checking and cross-checking burial returns and desperately hoping to finally, one day, recover his son’s body.

But it was not to be. Here’s a fictionalised extract from my forthcoming book, Known unto God, in which Kipling appears in the cemetery as the main protagonist, Jack, is digging fresh graves:

‘Hello down there!’
Smart boots, well polished; thick woollen stockings and the point of a stout stick.
‘Don’t let me stop you working,’ the man says. ‘I merely hollered so as not to startle you while you were below ground.’
The noise of the shovel stops. Jack lifts himself out of the hole.
The man smiles. ‘Forgive me,’ he says and offers his hand.
Wiping the wet soil from his palm Jack takes it and their eyes meet: bold, brown eyes that maintain a steady gaze from behind small, round steel-rimmed spectacles; bushy, beetling eye brows; a bristling brown moustache. A tired, careworn face. The blue of Jack’s clear eyes hold the moment and the two men stand in silence looking at each other for several seconds. The stranger’s eyes are the first to glance away.
‘A lovely afternoon,’ he is saying. ‘Fine weather, wouldn’t you say?’ The stranger’s manner isn’t hostile. Nor is it that of an officer – certainly not an officer who might have seen service here. The man is too old for a start.
‘Aye,’ says Jack. ‘A perfect day for digging.’

A perfect day for digging, just
As sweet and dry was the ground as tobacco dust.

‘Cigarette?’ the man asks, opening a small, silver cigarette case. His appearance is smart: belted Norfolk jacket, plus fours, stockings – quite the country gentleman, thinks Jack. He has removed the large flat cap that he was wearing and is holding it in both hands as if he were in church. The April breeze disturbs the few stray strands of hair combed across his otherwise bald head.
‘Looking for someone?’ Jack asks.
‘In a manner of speaking,’ the man says, and turns his gaze again over the untidy rows of crosses. Jack says nothing. ‘I expect it won’t be long before the headstones start arriving.’
‘Oh aye?’ says Jack. ‘I wouldn’t really know about that. I just…’
‘Just imagine,’ the man goes on, ‘row upon row of bright, white Portland stones, all of uniform height and width, inscribed with the names of the men who lie here below, complete with regimental badge and rank – an eternal army battalion in parade ground order. Magnificent!’
‘Aye, well…’ says Jack.
‘Did you serve?’ the man asks.
‘Aye,’ says Jack, ‘I did.’
‘Which regiment?’
‘2nd Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment. Prince of Wales’s Own.’
‘Ah!’ the man smiles. ‘A noble history.’
Jack narrows his eyes.
‘Oh, yes. I know a little of your regiment’s story. I’m researching a regimental history of my own at present, as it happens.’
‘Yes. I’ve been engaged to write the history of one of the Guards divisions.’
‘Is that why you’re here?’
The man doesn’t answer. He points instead with his cane to the small inscription on a nearby cross. ‘It is so important, don’t you think, that these Regimental details should not be lost when carving a man’s headstone?’
‘Aye, I suppose…’
‘My feeling is that whatever a man’s civilian position, when he is once in the Service of the King then it is for the Regiment he works, with the Regiment he dies, and in death he should be remembered as one of the Regiment.’
Silence. Jack stares across the rows of temporary wooden crosses. The cemetery suddenly feels exposed. The eyes of snipers or enemy observers could be on them, everywhere. ‘You said you was looking for someone,’ Jack says.
‘Indeed,’ the man goes on. ‘Although I am unable to find his name in any of the cemetery lists. Look,’ he holds out a thick wad of paper fastened in the top left hand corner with a treasury tag. ‘I’ve got the cemetery register here for this very plot.’
‘Oh, aye?’
‘Yes,’ the man holds up a thin, bundled section of the register. ‘Look!’ he points a triumphant finger and smiles. ‘It includes the very graves that you are digging.’
Jack takes the neatly typed list of names and numbers, rows and plots and starts to turn the pages.
‘It’s from the the War Graves Commission. I do a little work for them you see, in an advisory capacity.’
Names and names, rows and plots; ticks in blue, then red – marks against the graves whose details have been checked once, twice, three times. Handwritten notes in the margin; a few corrections; and a big, blue rubber stamp bearing the initials I.W.G.C.
‘Anyway, as I was saying,’ the man goes on, ‘the soldier whose remains I seek served here in this very area.’
‘Oh, aye?’
‘Yes. And there are several men of his regiment listed in the burial register and, well, I wondered…’
‘Well, I… I suppose I wondered if you or any of the chaps might have come across his remains. I understand you are clearing some of the smaller battlefield cemeteries. Here are his details.’ The man hands Jack a handwritten card. ‘Of course I know that according the register he isn’t here…’
Jack continues leafing through the pages of the burial roll, this neatly typed directory of the dead. Each of the graves he digs is numbered, referenced, and recorded. Plots and dates are written down along with ranks and regimental numbers. Even the bodies that he buries without a name are listed and their plots located with – of course – military precision.
‘But I am also aware from the register that many of the men you are re-burying were unidentified when first laid to rest.
‘That’s right,’ Jack says.
‘Well, it’s just a thought,’ the man goes on. ‘A hope; a slim chance.’
‘A chance?’
‘That something was, perhaps, overlooked when the man was first placed underground. I’ve no doubt some of these early burials were hastily conducted.’
‘Oh aye,’ Jack says. ‘Under fire, at times.’
‘Of course!’ the man exclaims. ‘That’s why it would be so easy to have overlooked some… some vital clue, some small item, maybe personalised, a maker’s name on a shirt, a brand of boots, a style of breeches.’
‘We always check,’ says Jack. ‘If there’s any ID left, we’d find it.’
‘I’m certain of it,’ the man says. ‘Yes, of course.’ They glance down at the yawning, earth-brown hole beside them. ‘So who is this plot for?’ he asks.
‘This is for…’ Jack looks down at the burial returns, ‘- Plot IX, Row D… Unknown,’ he says. ‘Unknown British Soldier.’
‘Unknown,’ the man says quietly.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jack says.
‘Oh no,’ the man shakes his head. ‘No, no. Not at all,’ he smiles. ‘Not unknown.’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘Not ‘unknown’ at all. Never ‘unknown’. Because,’ he smiles, ‘ultimately, all these men are known, aren’t they?’
‘Are they?’
‘They are indeed,’ the man frowns. ‘All men are known personally to the One to whom they have returned in glory.’
‘Well, I suppose…’
‘Yes, corporal,’ he adds, quietly. ‘Known unto God.’
Birds sing, far off. Skylarks. The man looks down and prods the earth with his walking stick. ‘Ah well,’ he says at last, ‘I shall continue my search. Having this,’ he shakes the wad of paper in the air and smiles, ‘having this makes the task so very much easier.’
‘Aye,’ Jack says. ‘But if the name you want to find isn’t on the list…Which regiment did you say this fella fought with?’
The man looks at him, but doesn’t answer.
‘I just thought, if you told me…’
‘My son,’ the man says, quietly. ‘Irish Guards… Forgive me,’ he says. ‘But it is so very hard, having no grave. His mother, you understand…’
‘Aye, o’ course,’ says Jack.
‘Well, you’ve been most helpful,’ the man says, replacing his cap. ‘May I ask your name?’
‘Yes, sir. Patterson sir,’ Jack replies. ‘Jack Patterson.’
The man smiles. ‘Well Jack, I shan’t keep you from your digging any longer. What shall I do? I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.’ And he turns on his heels and walks, head down, towards the cemetery gate.
Jack watches him, suddenly desperate to say something, anything, but equally unable to think of any suitable words. ‘They’re bringing men in all t’time,’ he calls out eventually. The man keeps on walking. ‘We’re still finding them!’ And they are. But only the birds now answer.
Jack plants his shovel in the ground and lights a cigarette. Far off, in the original corner of the cemetery, a small group of visitors place flowers on an old grave. Battlefield clearances are coming to an end. As farmers return to what were once their fields, as they plough and sow and husband the land once more, a bitter and dwindling crop will remain underground waiting to return in the years to come. But there are to be no more bodies buried here. All that remains for Dud Corner is for a permanent memorial to be built, for the wooden crosses to be replaced with bright, clean Portland headstones and for the grass to grow and re-grow and for the flowers and shrubs, such as they are, to take a gentle hold on the landscape and soften it into a place of peace once again.
More people will come and some will leave flowers of their own. In time, new roads will reach across the fields and take new visitors to this and other cemeteries. A small recess in a wall at the entrance will hold a printed copy of the book the man was carrying back on that windy afternoon in early 1921. But there will still be one name missing. There will always be one name missing.

When the guns stop firing…

… Jack starts digging.

The Great War is one of the most important subjects for any writer. There can’t be many families in Britain not personally affected, to say nothing of families from the old Empire colonies. Like anyone else with an interest in history, the subject has long fascinated me.

But there is an untold story. When the Great War ended and the guns stopped firing, the work of the British Expeditionary Force was far from over. For months following the Armistice in 1918, Allied soldiers were stationed in Europe undertaking prisoner-of-war escort duties or details at the Paris Peace Conference. Or, in some case, digging graves, exhuming bodies, searching the old battlefields for the remains of the missing.

The battles, of course, are well documented. Even the lesser-known stories (like those of the mining detachments) have been told. But no-one has yet told the story of the men who stayed for up to three years, until the British Army finally packed up and went home in 1921, doing one of the dirtiest, most unpleasant and physically challenging jobs of all.

Of course, the (then) Imperial War Graves Commission was already hard at work landscaping, designing and creating the iconic war cemeteries that ribbon across the old Western Front. But the British Army buried its own; not until the last remains were found, the last hasty battlefield burials re-interred in one of the larger concentration cemeteries, did the army leave the task of maintaining the graves to what has since become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Of course, as we know all too well, the job was never finished. Bodies are still being found. But at the time of the Armistice there was a huge effort involving large numbers of soldiers, ex-soldiers and labourers, to find and bury every last fallen soldier. The men who undertook this grisly duty – often voluntarily – deserve to have their story added to the annals of Great War history. That is what I intend to do.