Another grave issue

Finding out about your family in past times is bound to make you interested in graves. It can be very pleasant to roam through a country church yard, on a cheery, summer day and search out relevant graves. The sheer scale of some municipal burial grounds can beggar belief. Hopefully there is a handy warden who can point you in the right direction. War graves have a special poignancy. Somehow the vast size of them really brings home the futility of war. It may be a bit of an old cliché but really there are no winners in wars.

Last summer we were in France in a part much fought over in World War One, but not much occupied by the British army. This area, near Compiègne was fought over by French and German forces. As we are now in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of this war, let’s remind ourselves, here in Britain, that other countries were involved and lost thousands of their own young men for no particular purpose.

It happened that we came across a German First World War cemetery at Nampcel.

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A staggering eleven thousand five hundred and twenty four Germans are buried here.

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11524 – that is a huge number and they were killed in one little area of France, This is not the Somme, nor Flanders. That number really hit home.

The cemetery, as you might expect, is enormous but seems spaciously laid out.

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This is just a small corner. Of a site which occupies some six and a half acres.

Each cross carries the names of four Germans.

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Yes, there are two more on the other side.

I lost relatives in World War One – probably virtually all of us did – but that other old cliché about them having died for their country has always seemed hollow to me. How much more hollow it must have seen to the mums, wives and girlfriends of these German men who died so that, in the end their country could be defeated.

A cliché of the time was that this was ‘the war to end all wars’. Well of course it wasn’t. Just 21 years after this war ended we were all at it again but for the Germans there was a difference.

Did you notice in the photo of the graves I put in, one distant grave doesn’t follow the pattern of all the others? Actually, there are quite a few like it in the graveyard. The German buried there did not follow the Christian religion so the cross was not appropriate for him. He was a Jew.

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His memorial carries the Star of David as an emblem.

This chap was serving his country as he thought, no doubt, correctly. He died ‘for his country’ and then twenty years later his country turned on his fellows, condemning them to the horrors of the gas chambers. If he had close family survivors one can only wonder how they view the value of his ‘sacrifice’.

OK, I may have alienated half my readers by clearly being anti-war. But of course, most of the people actually fighting were pretty anti-war as well. That famous football match, on Christmas day 1914, shows that the front line men had no grudge against each other. They just had to do what their political masters told them to do and on that one day they dared to be themselves.

I’ll finish with a quote from a favourite song. It’s called Red and Gold and was written by Ralph McTell. I know it as performed by the folk rock band, Fairport Convention. It’s actually about the battle for Cropredy Bridge in the English Civil War in 1644. I think the quote speaks for itself.

Through the hedgerow’s fragile cover I saw brother killing brother And all of this was done in Jesus’ name.

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