I’m off to Flanders next weekend for a night away with a good friend and am currently day dreaming about watching dawn break at the Menin Gate and night fall in the Silent Cities.
These pilgrimages have become more and more important to me over the years and I’m reminded of a poem by one of my favourite writers, Rudyard Kipling. In 1922 King George V along with Field Marshal Earl Haig and a very small group of officials, visited a large number of Commonwealth war cemeteries along the Old Front Line in Flanders and Northern France, at a time when they were still being formally established by the Imperial War Graves Commission (later to become the CWGC). Kipling wrote this poem in honour of this trip, and it was published in the Times shortly after the pilgrimage. He also drafted a speech for the King which was delivered in Boulogne at the close of the visit.
This poem is one which I think of often when spending time at Batemans (Kipling’s home) which is just around the corner from me in Sussex. It is a place where I feel the link to The Great War keenly, through Kipling’s huge contribution to the IWGC as well as his personal loss. This poem in particular resonates at Batemans, as it is here later in 1922, that journalist Clare Sheridan (the daughter of Kipling’s neighbours) underhandedly sought to embarrass and discredit Kipling, provoking him to pass personal comment on America’s part in the war, particularly it’s late entry. Sheridan published her account of the exchange in the New York World, classing it as an ‘interview’ which caused a great deal of distress for Kipling. British and US officials immediately condemned his comments and with Kipling already in ill health, this PR crisis and betrayal of trust in what he felt was a personal conversation, sent him into a very dark period in his life.
For me, this poem is one of the most powerful there is in it’s sentiments about sacrifice and remembrance. It mirrors closely, the speech given by the King, and the last verse in particular is as relevant now, if not more so, than it was in 1922. It is a reminder, that the sacrifice made by so many men, was done so willingly in the belief that it was all worthwhile. Kipling hints at the idea that there is nothing that would make Them resent or regret this, save for the idea that the living might forget their sacrifice and why it was made. It is in this sentiment, that Kipling’s role as part of the Imperial War Graves Commission is reflected. His and the CWGC belief in the perpetual care of the Silent Cities and remembrance to honour those sacrifices are ideals we must ensure are kept forever and taken forward to the next generation.
The King's Pilgrimage - Rudyard Kipling
Our King went forth on pilgrimage
His prayers and vows to pay
To them that saved our heritage
And cast their own away.
And there was little show of pride,
Or prows of belted steel,
For the clean-swept oceans every side
Lay free to every keel.
And the first land he found, it was shoal and banky ground -
Where the broader seas begin,
And a pale tide grieving at the broken harbour-mouth
Where they worked the death-ships in.
And there was neither gull on the wing,
Nor wave that could not tell
Of the bodies that were buckled in the life-buoy's ring
That slid from swell to swell.
All that they had they gave - they gave; and they shall not return,
For these are those that have no grave where any heart may mourn.
And the next land he found, it was low and hollow ground -
Where once the cities stood,
But the man-high thistle had been master of it all,
Or the bulrush by the flood.
And there was neither blade of grass,
Nor lone star in the sky
But shook to see some spirit pass
And took its agony.
And the next land be found, it was bare and hilly round -
Where once the bread-corn grew,
But the fields were cankered and the water was defiled,
And the trees were riven through.
And there was neither paved highway,
Nor secret path in the wood,
But had borne its weight of the broken clay
And darkened 'neath the blood.
Father and mother they put aside, and the nearer love also -
An hundred thousand men who died whose graves shall no man
And the last land he found, it was fair and level ground
About a carven stone,
And a stark Sword brooding on the bosom of the Cross
Where high and low are one.
And there was grass and the living trees,
And the flowers of the spring,
And there lay gentlemen from out of all the seas
That ever called him King.
'Twixt Nieuport sands and the eastward lands where the Four Red Rivers spring,
Five hundred thousand gentlemen of those that served their King.
All that they had they gave - they gave -
In sure and single faith.
There can no knowledge reach the grave
To make them grudge their death
Save only if they understood
That, after all was done,
We they redeemed denied their blood
And mocked the gains it won.