Whatever the etymology of Passchendaele, the little Flemish village sounds to me like “Valley of Passion” in English. In 1917, it was a valley of mud and cordite, steel and fire. The dirt was burned and scoured of life, except where poppies sprouted in early summer. They are ephemeral and irrepressible little plants, nodding with blood red heads where there is little competition on disturbed ground. Poppies came to symbolize the War, then the Wars.The poem was composed in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian army doctor who was badly gassed at Passchendaele and succumbed the following year. When I worked in Montreal and visited the library archives at McGill Medical Center I passed a glass cabinet containing the original copy he posted home to his mother. Without the poem as his memorial, I wonder if his name would stir any remembrance of him.
Last week, there were ceremonies to mark the battles that lasted from the end of July to November 1917 around Passchendaele. The centenary was commemorated by somber tributes near Ypres in the presence of Belgian and British royals. The Last Post (equivalent to Taps in America) was heard across the military cemetery, and has been every day for the past hundred years.
The congregation joined the stirring Ode to Remembrance by Laurence Binyon, but when it came to, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them,” I felt the words hollowed out because everyone who knew people who served in the Great War have all passed away too. Have the fine words become a hackneyed ritual, like a church Creed or national anthem, empty of feeling and soon forgotten until next year? Of course!
Who remembers the names of young men and, indeed, women like Miss Nellie Spindler who was nursing close to the Front? Without names to flesh them they are become ghosts.
I was musing how quickly family memories fade. I was never told a great uncle perished at Passchendaele until I found his name through ancestry research. I only know he was 26 years old and married, but not his rank, regiment or anything else. Since no one ever mentioned him, he never existed for me until recently, and now I am come late and the only one to celebrate his life.
His name was Leonard James Saunders. The name has a sad mirror the other side of the family. The other Leonard died the following year in France, aged 19. There is, however, some memory of him. He lied about his age to the recruiting officer so he could join up with his older brothers. He disappeared in the war, probably atomized, which may be a better fate than terminal trauma in the trenches. It took decades for us to find his name listed at Arras. His mother laid a place at the table for the ghost every day for the rest of her life, because closure is harder without a body or a memorial.
I’m no better than others at remembering, but I know it helps to have something to stir this consciousness, maybe a portrait or if there is none then fabricate a token.
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