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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.

********

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