Nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of 12,000 immaculate, upright white headstones, set in regimented lines, glinting in the spring sunshine.
This is Tyne Cot, the world’s largest Commonwealth war cemetery. It is immaculate, tended daily by staff and volunteers from the War Graves Commission (CWGC), who have documented as best they can those interred and remembered here.
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The powerful memorial – one of too many in Flanders – is surrounded by white stone walls that bear the names of a further 33,783 British soldiers and 1176 New Zealanders whose bodies were never recovered from the cloying, suffocating mud where they fell.
In May 1922, as the cemetery neared completion, George V, who had made a pilgrimage here, said: “I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
More moving still is a quote on another wall, from the unnamed fiancee of a Scottish soldier, John Low, in January, 1918. It read: “The thought that Jock died for his country is no comfort to me. His memory is all I have left to love.”
You don’t need to look far for touches of humanity. There are headstones and register entries that show many very young soldiers, not out of their teens, perished; perhaps they had signed up with Pals’ regiments and were eager to find adventure, little knowing they would soon be commanded to climb out of a trench and walk towards barbed-wire fences, machineguns, mines, gas – and senseless death.
Or, in the museum, photos of wives and children, and letters from home, hoping the promises of it “all being over by Christmas 1914” would come true.
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