They shall grow not old

Remembrance, as we now know it, is not as straightforward as it might first appear. What would seem to us now as natural, inevitable – the individual commemoration of each fallen soldier – was in fact quite a new idea at the start of the Great War. The fact that each serviceman should have his own grave, with a stone and a name or – if his body couldn’t be found – an inscription on one of the many memorials to the missing is largely thanks to the tireless work of one man, Fabian Ware, founder of what it now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The bugle call that is synonymous with remembrance was, in fact, merely the last of many signals that punctuated the day in camp, ensuring soldiers got to where they were required to be on time and, in the case of The Last Post, signalled that sentries had been posted and the camp was secure for the night.

And those great words by Laurence Binyon, without which no remembrance ceremony would now be complete, were written not towards the end of the Great War when the death toll mounted, nor in 1918 when the ‘intolerably nameless names’ were being remembered, but in September 1914 – within weeks of the outbreak of war, and well before the scale of the slaughter was even considered a remote – and awful – possibility.

The idea for this iconic poem came to Binyon while on holiday in Cornwall. ‘The stanza They Shall Grow Not Old,’ (Binyon explained when interviewed in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of another war) ‘was written first and dictated the rhythmical movement of the whole poem.’ Interesting that, by then, Binyon seems to have settled on the word order ‘grow not’ rather than ‘not grow [old]’. Both exist in his early versions of the poem, but I’ve always thought ‘grow not old’ carries much more meaning, and is indeed why the verse still resonates so movingly today, and has become an icon of remembrance day.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Poppy wreaths placed by British schoolchildren at Langemark German cemetery, Belgium, October 2013


Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC, English soldier and poet, died on this day 97 years ago. Owen was killed exactly one week before the end of hostilities, taking part in the operation to cross the Sambre-Oise canal with his regiment, the 2nd Manchesters. The position was heavily defended and although the assault marked one of the last Allied victories of World War One, it came at a heavy cost.

Whether that cost includes the loss of further lasting poetry from Owen is difficult to estimate. No one is more closely associated in terms of subject matter with the war than Owen. Indeed, W.B.Yeats dismissed Owen as ‘unworthy of the poets’ corner in a county newspaper’ and excluded him (along with other war poets) from the Oxford poetry anthology he edited, claiming that ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’. And Owen famously wrote that his subject was ‘war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ Without war, therefore, there may not have been more poetry anyway.

But what we have from Owen’s short life is a unique and memorable legacy. He prepared a volume of his poetry for publication shortly before returning – for the last time – to the Western Front. He was based in Ripon, and hired a room in a small cottage a short walk from Ripon south camp in order to secure some peace and privacy for the task in hand.

Wilfred Owen Blue Plaque Ripon

The proposed volume of thirty poems included all the work that was to establish Owen’s reputation – Dulce et decorum est, Strange Meeting, The Chances, Miners, and Anthem for Doomed Youth. But as he assembled the poems and put them in order, writing a preface (‘my subject is war and the pity of war…’), his recovery from the neurasthenia that had hospitalised him earlier in the war was hastening. By August 1918 he was back in Etaples. Three months later he was dead.

What kind of poet he would have become is, of course, a tantalising question. But as Harry Ricketts says in his book Strange Meetings, ‘Owen’s lost poems, of whatever kind, matter less than a cancelled future in which, had he lived, he might have been happy.’

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.