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22 Jun 2020

Volunteer Views:
The Commonwealth Graves Lockdown Project 2

As you will have seen in our previous blog post we have been on a journey to visiting different Commonwealth War Graves sites around Lichfield which has led us to wonder what stories these stones could tell. 

We pondered why it was that one young man served in the West Yorkshire Regiment, lying now with comrades whom perhaps he knew before but whose path had led them to serve with the N Staffordshire or South Staffs regiments. What was it that prompted two of the men to serve in the Royal Navy when we are so far from the sea? What lay behind the intriguing inscription on the memorial at St Michael’s Church, Lichfield: “Private E.Towers, Lincolnshire Regiment (served as Smith)”?

When we reached St. Stephen's in Fradley we were lucky to find a lady tending the churchyard who was a member of the local heritage society. We had already discovered that the village had been the site of RAF Lichfield during the Second World War, so we were not surprised to see many memorial stones to those who had served as airmen. However, the majority were from the Royal Australian Air Force. The lady told us out that RAF Lichfield had been a training site for Bomber Command. Several Australians had come to England to answer the call of duty. It was in Lichfield that they planned to “get their wings”. Many of those buried at Fradley, however, lost their lives not in combat but in accidents. These were young men, who perhaps had driven nothing other than a tractor, now trying to manage the controls of Wellingtons and Lancasters, unused to the foggy conditions that could rise from the Trent and Tame. Now each of them have streets named after them where new housing was built on the old airbase.

Series of white grave headstones

We found the largest Commonwealth War Graves collection at Whittington, where there are 56 headstones. We think that the reason for the large number here is that the Staffordshire Regiment had their base in the village. The site now houses the Staffordshire Regiment Museum and is also the HQ of the Defence Medical Services. In contrast, we took another cycle ride on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, deliberately linking two outlying churches containing just one or two graves.

As we explored the different sites around the area, we found some variations on the simple white limestone headstones; some sites had a central stone commemorating all of the men who lay at that particular location in addition to their individual markers. Some had individual and grander memorials, perhaps their families had insisted on (and paid for) repatriation so they could lie in home soil.

Grave at St Chad's

Memorial at St Michael's

What was also noteworthy was the variety of service roles. Here was a purser in the Pay Corps, lying next to a drummer. There was a signalman close by an engineer from REME. There were quartermasters and auxiliary reservists. And between two of the Australians at Fradley, a German Luftwaffe pilot. Nor were they all young men. Quite a few were in their thirties and forties when they died. Through accident or injury, or service in engagements where large local cemeteries in foreign fields were unnecessary, they had all served their country in many different ways.

But then, Edward Thomas was not a typical soldier. He was 38, a forward artillery observer, when he died at Arras. He had joined up with The Artists’ Rifles, a regiment formed of volunteers who as civilians contributed to the creative and performing arts. They wanted to make their contribution as much as others. When asked what prompted him to join up, Thomas stooped to pick up a handful of earth from the Hampshire countryside and declared: “For this; literally, for this“.

We will finish with an extract from his poem March. It is not a war poem as such but demonstrates his intuitive appreciation of allowing nature to be a channel for contemplation. In our own journeys, we felt that we too were witnesses both to human struggle and to the balm of the nature and quiet thought.

Now I know that Spring will come again,
perhaps, tomorrow. However late, I’ve patience
After this night following on such a day

While still my temples ached from the cold burning
of hail and wind, and still the primroses
torn by the hail were covered up in it,
the sun filled earth and heaven with a great light
and a tenderness, almost warmth, where the hail dripped..

… What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail
had kept them quiet as the primroses. They had but an hour to sing
… so earnest were they to pack into that hour
their unwilling hoard of song before the moon
grew brighter than the clouds....

Not till night had half its stars
and never a cloud, was I aware of silence
stained with all that hour's songs, a silence
saying that spring returns, perhaps, tomorrow.