Yet another coach rolled up, full of schoolchildren shepherded by their history teachers. Langemark German cemetery is much visited and is on the standard Ieper bus tours. The students are respectful and well
behaved, but I would have preferred a quieter time to visit one of the most
poignant First World War sites in Flanders. Fifteen minutes later they depart to continue their whistle-stop tour of the Salient.
My thoughts return to a July morning two years earlier on the other side of the Franco-Belgian border. I’ve lost count of the number of world war sites, including cemeteries that I have visited on my walks– but this one was different.
That morning I set out from Albert at seven o’clock and started a circuitous walk along the beautiful country lanes towards Poziers. En route I reached the small village of Fricourt. Judging by their modern spacious houses and pretty gardens, the five hundred residents are prosperous. But I was passing through Fricourt to visit some of the other residents with a population thirty four- times larger. Just before the road sign indicating that you are leaving Fricourt, there is a steep grassy bank on the right hand side of the Poziers road. On top of the high bank is a continuous dense
hedge and a screen of trees. Inside the perimeter other trees are spaced out, but it is not an orchard; it conceals a German military cemetery – but seems more like a fortification discouraging entry.
This is a far cry from the light-reflecting citadels of the British fallen –their rows of Portland white stone gleam and sparkle and can be seen for miles in the distance.
Climbing the steps that bisect the steep bank and hedge, I enter a different world. Passing through the wrought-iron gate, I see the plain metal box set into the stone wall containing the cemetery register.
In 1920 the French authorities began the grim
task of collecting the remains of German soldiers from the twenty nine
locations north of the Somme River. Nine years later, the German War Graves Commission started landscaping the cemetery. Work was stopped in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. Not until 1966 were the Germans allowed to return to France to finish the building and landscaping. Unlike in other countries, maintenance of the German war graves is undertaken by a charity, with much of the work done by German youth volunteer groups.
At the top of the steps, a sea of black metal Germanic crosses appears beneath the trees. Among the black crosses are fourteen individual stones and curiosity draws me to one of these. As I approach, I realize it is a Jewish grave and I stand staring at the little pile of small stones sitting on top of the headstone. I have seen this before and know that it is evidence of earlier visitors paying their respects to a Jewish soldier. Even if you do not know the deceased, it is the custom is to place a small stone on the grave using your left hand. I place a small stone on the miniature cairn. Ludwig Wehrmann had given up his life for the fatherland, oblivious to the ordeal his relatives would face some twenty years later at the hands of his fellow countrymen. However, here all men are equal.
The Red Baron had been repatriated years ago and, the War’s most famous combat pilot, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, had been shot down five months before the end of the war. In 1925 his body was exhumed and reburied in Berlin. But, in this site, space isat a premium and his grave in Fricourt is now occupied by a soldier, Private Sebastian Paustian. Those that have their own grave must share a cross among four. Two names on either side.
Many do not have their own grave. At the rear of the cemetery, four communal graves are marked by five stones – five rough hewn squat crosses. The light strikes the red stones revealing rashes of small lichen patches.
Five thousand names packed onto metal plates. The remains of 11,970 soldiers lie in the four communal graves. Of these, the names of 6,477 remain unknown.
The German volunteers’ well meaning efforts to create a low maintenance, natural environment that blends in with the surrounding area,
through planting dense bushes and trees, have only served to make the
atmosphere more sinister. These trees are brooding and sombre. Green foliage casting shadows over the horror. In some areas the flickering shadows pockmark the ground, giving a mottled appearance which shimmers. In other areas, shadows of individual branches point at the carnage below – moving on to new groups of graves as the sun orchestrates the grim light show. Below lie the fallen fruits, the bitter harvest collected from the Somme battlefields, the hedges constraining the ground to prevent it from bursting its gory seams. My head swirls with numbers that I can’t visualise or comprehend.
Taking refuge on a sunlit area of warm grass, and still alone in the cemetery, I sit down and begin to study my notes and guidebook. It isn’t long before I stretch out, leaning on my elbow still pondering on the sheer
Then something happens that has never happened before or since
on my travels- I fall asleep.
A short time later I wake up and, opening my eyes skyward, remember where I am. This creates a chain of emotions First, horror – have I caused offence? I look around – then relief that I am still alone. It then occurs to me that I am the only one who could wake up amongst the 17,000 men.
If the trumpet – or would it be a bugle – ever blew on the Resurrection Day, what would this small area look like – an army of field grey soldiers?
I step back into my pleasant country lane, leaving the grey army to their sleep. Stones, crosses, mass graves, no matter, all the victors and defeated are now equal.