Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | News Flashes | Scoop Features | Scoop Video | Strange & Bizarre | Search

 


The Glorious Dead are Set in Stone

The Glorious Dead are Set in Stone

By Michael Travers


Menin Gate

On Passing the new Menin Gate: by Siegfried Sassoon

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, -
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth forever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

When Siegfried Sassoon wrote these words in 1927 the scars of his war were still weeping. He was bitter and dumfounded, but above all he was angry. In his mind this impersonal, silent edifice in all its imperial stone and pomp was an insult to his fallen comrades. These men had fought the greatest war the world had ever known and all they received was their name on a piece of stone. A name does not tell you the horrors these men endured. Names do not tell you who these men were. They are just names.

Patrick Roke is one of those names. He was my great-grandfather. My grandmother never knew him. He never got to bounce my father upon his knee. Patrick was killed aged 24, on the 23rd of December 1915, in the Ypres salient in Belgium, leaving behind three orphaned infants and a widow just as the Christmas lights were being lit. Luckily for my bloodline he was able to sire three daughters before he died, unlike so many millions of the best and bravest and strongest of their generation.

In the beginning these boys and men answered the call in a mix of excitement, bravado and duty. At the end, after all the carnage was over, those that survived could have only hoped that there was something, however small, that they had been fighting for, that maybe their sons, grandsons and great grandsons would never have to pick up a gun and endure the unendurable. I am that great-grandson, that grandson, that son and I have known no khaki. I have known nothing but peace. Maybe to that end their sacrifice was not in vain.

I went to Ypres in 2012 with my father and mother, a pilgrimage of sorts to visit Patrick - someone who was a part of me, and someone who I am a part of. How he died nobody knows. His body was never found. He has no grave, no known resting place, nowhere to lay flowers or weep. There is only a name inscribed on the Menin Gate, along with 54,888 others; one of the many vast monuments built across Flanders to mark the final resting place of the missing. Where is Patrick? Go up the stairs on the north side and turn right, and at the top is the enclave of the Durham Light Infantry, where about 10 feet up the wall, carved into the stone in the second column under ‘Corporal’ is his name, Roke P. That’s all.

If you have been to Belgium or northern France you can see why this was the battlefield of choice. No mountains or forests, only rolling hillsides, meadows and flatness as far as the eye can see; the perfect place for the pitched battles and cavalry charges of old. Ironically it was just this terrain that the roar of the modern artillery ripped apart into a mire of mud and misery that was to become the macabre stalemate of the trenches.

Ypres was the wrong village in the wrong place at the wrong time. An ancient fortress town that lay directly beneath the guns of two vast armies in the salient. It never stood a chance. These days, fully restored to its former glory Ypres is a thriving tourist town grown rich on the noble fascination of war tourism and the millions of descendants who come to pay their respects.

Nowhere is this more poignant than at 2000 hours each evening at the Menin Gate itself, when it fills with hundreds of pilgrims and descendants to hear the Last Post sound, lay wreaths, and remember lost ancestors. Those who fell, indeed those who survived but are now dead, are not forgotten, not by my family and not by the families of the nations that fought in Belgium and France nearly a century ago.

Sassoon’s indignation is easily understood in the context of the time, but today, for us generations who mourn the dead and buoy the memories, it is a shrine to our collective pasts, a place to come and say hello, and to give silent thanks. All who fought in Flanders are now dead, comrades in arms once more. I for one am glad that there is a place to visit the dead in the place where the ghost of Patrick Roke dwells. To see his name etched in stone and feel the reverence makes him somehow real to me, and not simply one of the Glorious Dead.

For never having had to look down the barrel of a gun with a man in my sights I thank you Corporal Roke. Thank you for your sacrifice that allowed me and mine to know the life we do. My grandmother, my father and myself would have liked to have known you.

********

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
Top Scoops Headlines

 

Valerie Morse: The Security State: We Should Not Be Surprised, But We Should Be Worried

On the very day that the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security released her report into the actions of people the Prime Minister’s office in leaking classified Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) documents to right-wing smearmonger Cameron ... More>>

Ramzy Baroud: PFLP Soul-Searching: Rise And Fall Of Palestine’s Socialists

When news reports alleged that the two cousins behind the Jerusalem synagogue attack on 18 November were affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a level of confusion reigned. Why the PFLP? Why now? More>>

Valerie Morse: Key And NZ Police At G20: What A Contribution

While 200 New Zealand police officers are helping to repress protests outside of the G20 in Brisbane this week, John Key has been inside pushing the interests of giant multinational corporations to fast track the World Trade Organization (WTO) ... More>>

ALSO:

Gabriela Coutiño: Ayotzinapa Caravan Meets With EZLN In Oventic

In their visit to Zapatista Territory, parents of the 43 students disappeared from Ayotzinapa Guerrero, agreed with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), to articulate a national grassroots movement that would question forced disappearances ... More>>

Ramzy Baroud: Talk Of A Third Intifada: Where To From Here, Palestine?

When a journalist tries to do a historian’s job, the outcome can be quite interesting. Using history as a side note in a brief news report or political analysis oftentimes does more harm than good. More>>

ALSO:

David Swanson: Who Says Ferguson Can't End Well

Just as a police officer in a heightened state of panic surrounded by the comfort of impunity will shoot an innocent person, the Governor of Missouri has declared a state of emergency preemptively, thus justifying violence in response to something ... More>>

Melanie Duval-Smith: Homeless Is Where The Heart Is

So, you are not allowed to feed the homeless on the streets of Florida. Last week, a 90 year old man and two Christian ministers were arrested for doing just that. I can hear the cries of the right wingers from here. “Not in our back yard”, ... More>>

John Chuckman: What We Truly Learned From the Great War and the Absurdity of Remembrance Day

No matter what high-blown claims the politicians make each year on Remembrance Day, The Great War was essentially a fight between two branches of a single royal family over the balance of power on the continent of Europe, British foreign policy holding ... More>>

Get More From Scoop

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Top Scoops
Search Scoop  
 
 
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news