One solitary gravestone, in a quiet churchyard, was to mark the beginning of a lockdown journey of discovery. In fact, the stone was not solitary, but the white limestone almost seemed to glow in the spring sunshine, and it struck our attention. It was immediately familiar as the understated marker of one who had died as a member of the armed services during one of the two World Wars. On closer inspection, we saw that it belonged to a young man who had served in the Second World War. He must have been injured and returned home, only to die later of his wounds. He was buried with his parents.
Visiting graveyards may seem like a strange and morbid project. It started in 2017 when we went on a tour of the World War One battlefields of Vimy Ridge and Arras in Northern France. My interest was as a member of the Edward Thomas Fellowship. Edward Thomas is not one of the better-known war poets, his work is more contemplative, rooted in observations of the natural world, even in a war zone. Indeed, I identify with Thomas as more of a poet of the countryside. He used to explore the pathways and lanes on foot and by bicycle and observe the coming of the seasons just as we have been doing recently. I did not wish to miss the opportunity of honouring him on the 100th anniversary of his death on 9th April 1917.
Our guide on that tour was excellent. We were able to visit not only the exact spot where Thomas died and at the exact time, (7.36am), but also the cemetery where he lay. Our guide explained the origins of the design and continuing maintenance of such cemeteries. Initially, it had been the intention to repatriate the war dead. However, as fatalities increased, this became logistically impossible. Sir Edwin Lutyens, the renowned architect, was commissioned to design a distinctive style of memorial for all. Understated and yet movingly eloquent, these were each the same size, enough to carry the soldier’s name, rank, and regiment. We learned that depending on the number of the fallen in specific locations, the size of a commemorative plinth and cross as a visual marker on the horizon was also standardized.
Given that the tradition was now for each man to be buried as close as possible to where he fell, and to be honoured with a standard size and design of memorial irrespective of rank, how did it come to be that some of the fallen we now found buried in quiet corners of churchyards in their native communities?
A few days after we had come across that single military headstone in Christchurch, Lichfield, we were out again for our daily exercise, when we passed another churchyard in a neighbouring village. Sue spotted a simple green plaque by the gate - “Site of Commonwealth War Graves”. She began to wonder if there were other headstones scattered among other local churchyards. After a bit of research on the Commonwealth War Graves website, she came up with the idea of a focus for our lockdown exercise trips, whilst I made sure that I took my volume of Thomas's poems with us.
The Commonwealth War Graves website has a wealth of information. If you enter your postcode, the site and map will show the various Commonwealth War Graves locations within a 10-mile radius. Sue selected fourteen sites containing a total of 154 graves to get us started, all within walking or cycling distance. It seemed to us to chime with the unusual times we are currently living in to seek out the quietest and most peaceful parts of the countryside surrounding Lichfield. Our search for these headstones took us down many byways that we may not have discovered. Edward Thomas, champion of observing nature and walking ancient pathways, would have been impressed.
Many of our church visits were particularly memorable. On the 17th April we walked to the small village of Wall. Here we found three graves in a beautiful setting. You can see from the picture below that cherry blossom was blooming in the glory of a spring day. In the background, you can also see the vestiges of an earlier civilisation, the Roman remains of the settlement of Letocetum on the Roman road of Watling Street. The churchyard was a place of tranquil rest and contemplation connecting generations and centuries.
Our longest cycle ride took us out to Elford on 4th May. It wasn't really a great distance but we’d never been there before and route planning was interesting because of the way the River Tame looped across the gently undulating Staffordshire landscape. However, we found the bridge that spanned the river to reach the village. There was just one military grave at Elford and we had the churchyard to ourselves. We walked with our bikes down a long secluded avenue through a gate to the churchyard. St. Peter's is a large church with a solid tower, bounded on one side by the Tame and dominated by a huge ancient beech tree. We sat on a bench, drank some water and shared chocolate. Then we found the headstone, eloquent in its simplicity: solitary but not lonely, for, like many, this soldier had been buried with his parents. With a sense of serendipity, we found that we had visited on the anniversary of this young man's death.
Visiting the different Commonwealth War Graves sites has been a calming influence, and one that confers a degree of perspective. We have been able to explore new places, appreciate the beauty of nature and find moments of quiet reflection as we paid tribute to those who lost their lives in conflicts going back 100 years. This in turn has helped us to appreciate the sacrifice of those giving selflessly on today's very different front line. We have no personal connection with any of these whose remains lie in churches across our community. Nevertheless, it has been fascinating to piece together fragments of information, leading us to wonder what stories these stones could tell.
Do check out our second blog to find out about some of the stories we discovered.