I have always felt a sense of comfort and inner peace when wandering The Great War battlefields. Usually, people don’t quite know how to respond to this when I try to explain my interest, and I receive comments fair regularly about how morbid I am, that I should ‘get a more uplifting hobby’ and other such things… I understand this reaction of course, especially from people who haven’t been there to feel it – it is difficult to explain the pull that the Old Front Line has to some of us. As it once called to men across the country to do their duty, it calls now to some of us to fulfil a duty of a different kind and it is only when you are there, walking that land, that you feel you are actively engaging in that and listening. This duty is to share the stories of the men who fought and ensure that they are never forgotten. It is this which drives me and whilst others may perceive it as an obsessional interest, it is far, far more than that. It is something which stems from a deep rooted sense of moral obligation, a responsibility that I feel has been bestowed upon me.
When I am unable to get over to Flanders or the Somme, I look to The Great War around us at home to placate the feeling that I am not doing my duty – or not doing enough – and for comfort. To me, The Great War often acts as an anchor in life, it is something which is always there, unchanging and unending. No matter what else life throws at us, the stories of the men are there, the impact of the war is there, thousands upon thousands of tales to be uncovered and told, endless ripples dancing forever across the fabric of our society and lives.
Last week, I was a little down after taking my dog to the vet and so on my way home, I stopped at one of my local war memorials for a moment of reflection. Like many communities across the country, the war had a profound effect on the ancient village of Robertsbridge. In its 700 year existence, the village had no doubt seen many trials and tribulations by the time war was declared in 1914, but the all encompassing nature of The Great War was to leave an indelible mark on the village which lost 41 men.
The memorial – a clocktower by design – sits as many do, in the heart of the village and was unveiled in 1921 by Lieutenant-Colonel J. Body, D.S.O., O.B.E., of the 9th Buffs. A newspaper article from the Sussex Express published shortly afterwards, describes the event as being attended by a ‘large number of residents’, with a guard of honour provided by the village’s local battalion – the 5th Royal Sussex – who also provided buglers to sound The Last Post and The Reveille. As I was reading the words written nearly 100 years ago, I was moved to tears by the following description of Body’s speech:
‘He only wished that he could tell his hearers all he knew of the brave men who had laid down their lives. They were great men and loving comrades. We must learn from their deaths and be less selfish and think more of others than ourselves. Many people, he continued, considered it a waste of money to erect these memorials, but they would remind us and future generations of the sacrifices these men had made. We were all tremendously proud of them, and there could be nothing better than for all to remember than they gave their lives for their country in the hours of her greatest need.’
Like many unveiling ceremonies, the roll of honour was recited, and many floral tributes placed around the foot of the memorial by family and friends – the words ‘loving Son’ and ‘dear Dad’ present in nearly each and every one, a painful reminder of the true cost of war. The local church bells rang out in remembrance and the article notes that the foot of the column was decorated by a French soldier – a very tangible link to the land in which many of the men it serves to remember now rest.
This snippet from an old newspaper records an event repeated in almost every town and village of our country but it is Brody’s words, spoken just a few minutes down the road from where I am now, that speak so perfectly for the part of me that will never renege on the promise I have made to fulfil my duty.