‘There is nothing more alive than a tree that learns how to grow in a cemetery’

Today I’m really missing Flanders, having not visited in 3 months which is the longest period I’ve been away from there in nearly a year! One of my favourite areas is Ploegsteert Wood and it’s a place I am keen to return to soon for some solitary time. The woods themselves are steeped in history and it is an area where I feel a deep connection to the Great War.

Much of our spiritual culture in the West is rooted in paganism, in the ancient polytheistic beliefs of Celts and other tribes who worshipped the ‘old gods’ of the natural world. Perhaps this is why many people find woodlands to be deeply emotive places. As I wander down the main path from Prowse Point to the northern entrance of the wood, I can feel the canopy close in above me, the gentle rustling of the leaves welcomes me into the comforting solitude of the forest. As all reminders of time and modern life drift away, the sight of abandoned bunkers and machine gun posts dotted among the trees are redolent of the death and violence which once engulfed this area. Following the path, the crunch of the dirt under foot seems to resonate in the quiet, the echo of 1000’s of footsteps which came before it, bound up and held forever in this place.

At Toronto Avenue Cemetery the shadows loom over the damp headstones of the resting 78 Australians, casualties from the 3rd Divisions attack on Messines in June 1917. In the winter months in particular this cemetery has a very sombre feel, the dark veil cast by the trees blocks the light almost entirely, leaving the Rising Sun of the AIF badge etched on the headstones as the only sunshine here.

For the majority of the war Ploegsteert Wood lay behind British lines and is often described as being a ‘relatively quiet sector’. The key word here is ‘relatively’ as its proximity to the front line meant that Ploegsteert was rarely quiet. Although for the most part, little fighting took place here, the area itself it was an important logistical hub for British forces and when battles did rage here, they were fierce. By 1915 the wood was crisscrossed with trenches, many named after places familiar to the men who christened them ‘The Strand’, ‘Fleet Street’ and ‘Regent Street’ among them. Other areas and points of interest were less creatively named – ‘Mud Lane’, ‘Dead Horse Corner’ and the inspired ‘Three Huns Farm’ come to mind. It was here that men rested while on rotation out of the front line or had their first taste of trench life, the woods was a place of comparative safety for some one million men who sheltered among the glades and ageing trees during the course of the war.

In the Spring and Summer months it is difficult not to be reminded of the poem by Roland Leighton, written to his love Vera Brittain describing the moment when he came across the decomposing body of a British soldier hidden in the undergrowth in Plugstreet Wood among the wildflowers. The juxtaposition of delicate flowers blooming from the soils of death and decay is not a new literary device by any stretch of the imagination – and yet it does not fail to tug at the heart, when stood in a place where nature’s power to reclaim is painted so vividly before your eyes.

Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood-
Think what they have meant to me-
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest it was better so.)
Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.

– Roland Leighton

In the now peaceful surroundings it is difficult to imagine what it was like here 100 years ago. Thomas Nash of the 4th Gloucesters described the wood as ‘oppressive with… spirits of men slain in passion, not honest healthy ghosts… in one dug-out, Purity Villa, our men had been surprised by a German patrol and butchered in their sleep’ . The notion of spirits and woodlands go hand in hand and here, the ghosts of the past are felt strongly indeed.

Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery and Rifle House are in my opinion two of the most beautiful in Flanders, nestled within the woods, its inner sanctums. Taking a seat to sit and reflect in these Portland stone copses, the world outside seems distant and yet the lives of the men who died here over 100 year ago feel so close, their spirits unfettered by the passing of time.

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