11 November 2008

'In Flanders Fields'

Today is the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, World War I. Above is the cemetery in Flanders, Belgium, where my great-uncle Corporal Larry Dowd, brother of my maternal grandmother, is buried. I located his grave in 2001, 84 years after his death. I wrote the essay below five years ago.

In September 2001 I visited the grave of my great-uncle Lawrence Dowd who died in action near Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 1917. He’s buried in one of many war cemeteries in that part of Flanders. My mother’s Uncle Larry, from County Meath, enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. To my deep regret, I never asked my grandmother about her brother, but my mother often told me of her father hearing the ‘banshee’ a day or two before the telegram arrived telling of Larry’s death.

I was visiting Ieper to officiate at the wedding of Stefaan Gouwy, from that area, and Joy Ronulo, who grew up in Plaridel, Mindanao, when it was still a Columban parish. She and Stefaan met while working in a factory in Korea.

Stefaan took me to the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in the old town hall of Ieper, known to the ‘Tommies’ as ‘Wipers,’ from the French name ‘Ypres.’ The soldiers even published a newspaper there that they called The Wipers Times. The town of Ieper was totally destroyed during the Great War but the blueprints of its public buildings were saved and they were all rebuilt.

Through an official at the museum, a marvelously interactive one that shows the horrors of the War but that also shows that each one who died was a unique human being, I found where my Uncle Larry was buried. I was very moved when I visited his grave in the Potijze Chateau Cemetery, the first ever relative to do so. I was touched too when Stefaan and Joy, who had come with me, told me they would visit on Remembrance Day.

One could not but feel a terrible sense of loss reading the names and ages of the soldiers buried in the cemeteries that are beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. So many still in their teens. So many unidentified, known simply as ‘A soldier of such-and-such a regiment.’ Most headstones had a crucifix but quite a few had the Star of David.

The people of Ieper hold sacred the memory of all who died in Flanders, whether Allied or German. One friend of Stefaan who had grown up on a farm next to one of the larger war cemeteries, pointed out to me the corner where some German soldiers had been buried but had subsequently been repatriated. There’s no glorification of war.

On the Mennen Gate, similar to the Arc de Triomphe, built by the British after the War in the heart of Ieper, the names of about 10,000 unidentified soldiers who fought in the uniform of Britain are listed. They include Gurkhas from Nepal and many from what are now Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, their names and ranks revealing their faiths, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and their nationalities. There are names from the then colonies of Britain in Africa and the West Indies, countless names from the then dominions, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Canada, even more from the Irish regiments.

Every night at 8 volunteers from the Ieper Fire Brigade sound the Last Post at the Mennen Gate. I had heard about this and wanted to attend on at least one evening. One of Stefaan’s friends insisted that if no one else could take me I was to phone her. I took her at her word. All traffic stopped for the ceremony. Three buglers sounded the Last Post and then a veteran, who looked old enough to have fought in the Great War, laid a wreath. What brought tears to my eyes was the sight of a young mother beside me with her child who was hardly a week old.

One of those who died on 8 September 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, not too far away in northern France, was Tom Kettle. He was one of the outstanding Irish nationalists of his generation, the son of a prominent land reformer, and a friend of Patrick Pearse, who led the Insurrection in Dublin in Easter Week that same year. Tom Kettle had been MP for North East Tyrone from 1906 to 1910. At the time he enlisted, already in his mid-30s, he was a professor at University College, Dublin. There’s a bust of him in St Stephen’s Green, very near the old campus, with the closing lines of his sonnet To my Daughter Betty, written only four days before his death. Father John Henaghan, killed by the Japanese in Malate, Manila, in February 1945, took the title of one his books, The Secret Scripture of the Poor, from the last line of the poem, one of the most poignant of the many the Great War produced.

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! They’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

(Fr John Heneghan, above right, bust of Tom Kettle in St Stephen's Green, Dublin, above left.)

A wedding in Belgium, a celebration of life, brought me to the grave of my Uncle Larry, reminded me that many people in Britain, where I was working at the time, and those in my native Ireland, whose ancestors came from the former British colonies, are relatives of those who came to Europe during the Great War to fight ‘for the freedom of small nations.’ Their great-uncles, like mine, could make their own the words of Canadian officer John McCrae, who died there in 1918. They Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders Fields.

(John McCrae)

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