… words from Ruyard Kipling’s Recessional. We came to do what we had to do. We did not forget. On June 12 we were at Bailleul, in Flanders on the French-Belgian border, to be present at the grave of my uncle, for whom I am named, on the exact centenary of his death in the Great War of 1914-1918. The Commonwealth War cemetery there contains the remains of more than five thousand British and Commonwealth dead. Not far away, on the Menin Gate there are inscribed the names of some 54,000 others. And in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris there is a modest and simple tablet that records the fact that a million – yes, million: with six zeros – British and Commonwealth soldiers died in the Great War; and it also notes that the vast majority of them rest in French soil.
We do not know the exact details of Allan Jones’ death, but it is probable that he died of his battle wounds in a Bailleul military hospital – of one of such Seigfried Sassoon was later to write:
But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went, And there was silence in the summer night.
Here is what I said (apart from some personal and family words about my mother’s inconsolable love for her only brother) at his graveside:
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Almighty and everlasting Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh: We commend to you the soul of Allan Jones, and the souls of all who rest in this place, pleading that the memory of their devotion and courage may ever be an inspiration to us, and that we too may serve you faithfully all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no more war, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no voice nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal posession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitation of your glory and dominion, ever without end. [This lovely prayer is, apart from three words that I added, the work of John Donne.]
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
God grant to the living, grace; to the departed, rest; to the Church, the Queen, and the Commonwealth, and all mankind, peace and concord; and to us and all his servants, life everlasting.
And may the blessing of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Sprit, be with us and abide with us always.
So we left, as it were, a bouquet of poppies and roses. Just two years before my uncle’s death, and very close to Bailleul, at the second battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote what is surely the most famous of all war poems – In Flanders Fields:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
The song “Roses of Picardy”, with lyrics by Frederick Weatherly and music by Haydn Wood, was published in 1916 and was widely sung by British soldiers as they enlisted for the battle front on the Somme:
Roses are shining in Picardy, in the hush of the silver dew, Roses are flowering in Picardy, but there’s never a rose like you! And the roses will die with the summertime, and our roads may be far apart, But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy! ’tis the rose that I keep in my heart!
I think that one of the things that distinguishes the “Great” War from World War Two is indicated by the way in which the former produced so much poetry which resonates to this very day. My late brother-in-law, Dr Frank Field, whose special interest concerned the intersection between early twentieth century history and the culture of the period, wrote a book (published in 1991) entitled British and French Writers of the First World War: Comparative Studies in Cultural History.
The Cambridge University Press said this of the book: “The First World War dealt a profound shock to European society. In this original and stimulating book, the historian Frank Field looks at the experiences of France and Britain during the war years as revealed in the work of some of their most prominent writers responding to the unfolding catastrophe. Brooke, Wells, Shaw, Kipling, Lawrence, Owen and Rosenberg are set alongside Jaurès, Barrès, Maurras, Péguy, Psichari and Rolland, as case studies of the war’s impact on intellectual life in their respective countries. The comparative perspective reveals deep differences between the French and the British experience, and yet a shared ordeal marked by the terrible ironies attendant on the shattering of common ideals. Literary images of war as a purification rite were effaced by the bloody realities of the conflict and the prophecies of writers who came to feel increasingly distanced from the essential innocence of the world before 1914 took on a new tone, grimly apocalyptic or bitterly disillusioned.”
For some reason, of which I am not aware, Frank made no reference to Siegfried Sassoon (a few of whose words I have already quoted, above). I first became aware of Sassoon, as a teenager, reading his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man – an idyllic account of rural life in the golden Edwardian years between the death of Queen Victoria and the accession of King George V. And then came his Memoirs of an Infantry Office. Wounded several times, he had served with exceptional (and as Robert Graves described it) suicidal bravery – on one occasion capturing single-handedly a German trench in the Hindenburg Line.
At last there came “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”, bringing with it (11 A.M. on November 11, 1918) the Armistice which, it was fervently prayed, would bring an end to “The War to End All Wars”. And Sassoon expressed the inexpressible relief and joy of millions, as “Everyone Sang”:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing; And I was filled with such delight As prisoned birds must find in freedom, Winging wildly across the white Orchards and dark green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted; And beauty came like the setting sun; My heart was shaken with tears; and horror Drifted away – O, but Everyone Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
And there is a footnote. Toward the end of his life, Siegfried Sassoon became a Roman Catholic. He was received into the Church at Downside Abbey where, only a handful of years later, our local SSC Chapter would make its annual retreat. He had hoped to receive instruction from the incomparable Monsignor Ronald Knox, but Knox was by this time too ill to do it. Sassoon, who died in 1967, was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Mells, in Somerset, very close to the mortal remains of Father Knox whom he had so much admired.