On the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website there is a warning: SCHOOL GROUPS: TEACHERS – PLEASE CLOSELY SUPERVISE YOUR STUDENTS, PARTICULARLY AT THE TYNE COT CEMETERY CROSS OF SACRIFICE. I presume the all caps are to emphasize the importance of the message.
I’m not sure what exactly is meant by “supervise closely.” When we visited Tyne Cot the parking lot was full of tour buses, many of them carrying students. And said students were climbing all over the base of the cross of sacrifice. Not all of them, but a good many. I didn’t see teachers or tour guides shooing them off.
The majority of the men who are buried here were probably not much older than the students who are clambering on their memorial, and they would probably have behaved the same way in a similar situation. The young do not reverence death; it is too far removed from their existence.
This is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in this area of Belgium; the cross that dominates (and that students climb) rests on top of a German pillbox that was converted to a dressing station when the Allies took possession of this piece of land. The fields around are peaceful. A century after the battles there is no hint of war, except for the row upon row of headstones.
The Menin Gate, in Ypres, lists the names of about 58,000 Commonwealth soldiers who were killed during the First World War who are buried in unknown graves. Originally the intention was to inscribe all the names of those without a known grave on the walls of the Menin Gate – but there are so many and there just wasn’t room. The walls of Tyne Cot take up the count, listing those who were killed after August 15, 1917.
It is rather depressing to think of so many dead. The green fields of Flanders seem peaceful today. The carnage of the century ago is something found mostly in the history books. The list of names is a long one. Anderson is a fairly common surname, so I have looked for that name in each cemetery we visited. Not relatives that I am aware of, but a reminder that in another time and place that could have been me answering the nation’s call. I must admit though, by the time we arrived at Tyne Cot I had perhaps become a bit blasé about death. I have already seen so many memorials, so many cemeteries, that the names and numbers have begun to lose their impact.
Maybe that is what happened during the First World War. So many hundreds of thousands dead as the opposing armies fought over a few miles of territory, bogged down in the trenches, neither side willing to acknowledge that they had descended into military madness, captured by an endless sense of hubris and the unwillingness to compromise because compromise was equated with defeat.
On a regular basis it seems, conflicts break out that seem to have little to no justification to an outsider. Are nationalist aspirations really sufficient to justify violence to the point of civil war? Apparently to some in the former Yugoslavia it was. Does difference over religious leadership more than a thousand years ago matter enough today to go to war? It seems to if you are Shia or Sunni Muslim. Does the threat of a terrorist attack justify air strikes in the Middle East? Someone obviously thinks so, as Western air forces attack the so-called Islamic State.
No matter the reasons, the end is the same. Tyne Cot Cemetery is a reminder of that.