‘Maybe you had to leave in order to really miss a place’

Next month will mark a year since I last set foot on the battlefields of the Western Front, a place I had visited pretty much monthly in the years preceding COVID 19. To say I miss it is an understatement. I recently read a quote from an Aboriginal Elder of Uluru, Bob Randall who said:  

“To recover our wellbeing, we have to pay attention to all four dimensions of our being, mind, body, spirit and land”

… and I couldn’t help but consider this in the context of those of us who feel such a connection with the battlefields. 

Many ancient cultures believe that the land is inherently linked to people and spirituality; that we are connected. Though this belief is seen most clearly in the ideologies of native peoples, it is demonstrated across all societies. Land after all, is a central component to disputes both large and small, from arguments between neighbours to world wars. The Yankunytjatjar believe that their ancestral spirits have a ‘stake in the land’ and that when they die they continue to live on in the trees, rivers and sky. Major religions readily accept the sacred nature of locations, from Mecca to Jerusalem – is this really much different, is it not simply another form of profound spiritual connection?

I suppose I find my faith more aligned to that of aboriginal people, for me the battlefields of the First World War have a substance that stretches beyond the physical remnants of war. Psychologists have hypothesised that our memories are retained by linking events to where they occurred. This is known as episodic memory formation – tying events and ideas to specific locations and times, and my connection to the Western Front in particular is based along these lines. The battlefields have been committed not just to my memory but to my sense of self. The lanes and paths, the Silent Cities and those big Somme skies all speak to something which feels integral to how I navigate my life. Not just because I spend the majority of my time pouring over history books and war diaries, but because the events that occurred in the fields and villages still resonant within the landscape. Just as sound waves travel through air and water, the stories of the First World War travel through the battlefields, if you care to tune in and listen. Immersing myself in these waves has sustained my spirituality, and without these visits I’ve felt that horrible feeling that something is missing, perhaps the battlefields have become my fourth dimension of wellness that Bob Randall speaks of.

This past year has left many of us bereft. Losses in all forms; personal, financial and spiritual have felt almost too heavy to bear at times and it is precisely in these moments that we look to the places and activities that give us strength to sustain us. I know that being unable to reach the battlefields has been very difficult for many people with a passion for the Great War, and in lieu of this people have found an outlet in so many wonderful and creative ways. From the Great War Group, podcasts and online talks to local research and virtual battlefield tours, perhaps this unwelcome restriction has forced us to look at other ways to educate, engage and connect that we may never have discovered had the doors to the battlefields not closed as abruptly as they did last year.

One thing that is for sure is when those doors reopen, we will cherish our time there all the more.

The Menin Gate on my last visit to Ypres, March 2020

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