On the first day of June 1918, my great uncle, Sapper Harry Campbell, was killed in action on a battlefield of the Great War. He was my maternal grandfather’s sister’s husband. My aunt Alice died in the 1970s. Their only daughter, Mary, who never married, passed away about twenty years after her mother’s death. So Harry Campbell’s family line died out completely, making his own death in the trenches of Northern France ninety five years ago seem even sadder.
‘Lest we forget’ Rudyard Kipling wrote. Our nation does its best to not forget the sacrifices made during the Great War but there are few of us around these days to remember individuals like Sapper Harry Campbell.
Today I went to see his grave at a relatively small military cemetery on the road between the villages of Averdoingt and Ligny-St Flochel, about thirty kilometres west of Arras.
It was a beautiful day. I couldn’t have hoped for it to be more warm and sunny. I travelled there avoiding the main road as I wanted to arrive feeling calm and at peace with myself and the world. So I drove along the back roads through the tranquil, almost deserted villages and hamlets of Warlus, Wanquetin, Avenses-le-Combte, Givenchy-le-Noble, and Mazières which once would have all been situated in the heart of the devastation.
I stopped in Averdoingt and had a wander round the village for twenty minutes before going on to the cemetery. I felt like I needed to. I got out of the car and walked around the magnificent thirteenth century church of St Leger and watched the cows that grazed in the field adjacent to the church yard. I even talked to them, in French of course. I knew their names . . . les vaches! Lovely creatures with no knowledge of why I was there or what had happened nearby almost a century ago.
Returning to my car I drove on and parked a couple of hundred metres beyond the cemetery as I didn’t want it to spoil the scene of solitude and remembrance. I walked back along the road wondering how my emotions would cope with being at the final resting place of someone who I felt love and deep respect for but whom I had never met.
The cemetery was such a beautiful place. In the warm summer sun and in total silence, 678 gravestones stood regimentally, side by side and row in row, just as the ranks of soldiers in World War I were so criminally sent to face their deaths in battle. But the horror of that sickening conflict was hard to imagine in a place as exquisitely serene as this.
It wasn’t just the thought that these men and boys were dead that upset me but what they must have gone through in the final days of their lives too. Not knowing what to expect they were hurled into a hell so atrocious that no human being should ever have to suffer. They were sent to their deaths needlessly by Generals who knew nothing of the appalling conditions or the horrendous and ultimate sacrifices that were being made.
They said it was the war to end all wars, but it didn’t end all wars and it was this thought that brought tears to my eyes. If it had ended all wars then the deep sadness and misery may have just about been worthwhile, but it didn’t. My heart ached for every single one of those ten million people who perished in the First World War but seeing the gravestone of someone who had been my own flesh and blood gave the situation a more personal edge and one filled with grief.
I touched Harry Campbell’s headstone and I spoke to him. I passed on a message of love from my sister and I had a few words to say of my own. I spoke of my appreciation, gratitude, pain, his wife and daughter who I had known when I was young and the fact that I would always remember his deeds, even though he had died thirty nine years before I was born.
I didn’t want to leave. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back there but as I walked away I knew I was leaving a member of my family behind. My visit there today was hard but nothing that I have ever done in my life could ever compare to the hardship endured by Sapper Harry Campbell. As I walked away from the cemetery at Ligny-St Flochel the birds were singing, bees and butterflies flew from flower to flower and the sun felt warm on my back. He couldn’t have been resting in a more beautiful place.
And as I walked away from the cemetery I saw poppies growing along the side of the road. I could have sworn they weren’t there when I first arrived. They were the poppies that will ensure that I always remember.
Sad but lovely scenes from Averdoingt
and Ligny-St Flochel cemetery.