I feel like I haven’t written forever. And when I say I feel like – I know I haven’t written in a long time. The truth is that I’m always writing, in my head. The following letter is a culmination of thoughts that plagued me during a 4 day choir tour to Ypres and Ghent, Belgium. It is addressed to my great great uncle, Serjeant J Ranson 41581 of the 52nd Field Ambulance Division, RAMC, of the 17th Army Division, which became part of the 2nd Army , joining the British Expeditionary Forces on 31st July 1915. We visited his grave whilst we were there. The letter tells his story, and ours, together. It was an extremely moving tour, in memory of all those who fell for our freedom. I am exceptionally grateful to all the staff who trained and took us, who made it educationally enriching, and who allowed us to visit his grave.
James, Uncle Jim, Jimmie,
I wept by your grave today. The grave you never thought you would own. A grave that, like so many, bears the body of one who was far too young to die. Aged 22, on the 6th October 1915, you were hit by shrapnel in the back of your left lung whilst saving Scottish Highlanders during the Battle of Loos. As Serjeant Beardsall wrote to your sister, Elizabeth, “In giving another life, [you] gave your own.” You had worked tirelessly since September 1914 “in the inky blackness of the night” to bring the wounded back to the field hospital. That night you made it back, but your punctured lung wept out your life’s breath and you were gone. A “good and true man” gone, like so many others, into the only place that promised hope. Death took you as his own.
You, who had been so proud to write back here and tell us of your encounter with the King as he visited the field hospital, had died a hero’s death. But even knowing that could never have relieved your pain and suffering as, slowly, you passed away. Your brother, Richard, also of the RAMC, was by your side, and for your sake, in your memory, fought his way through the remainder of the war to become an engineer. Edward became a lawyer. Elizabeth and Grace became nurses. But you, unlike your siblings, were never to achieve your life’s ambition. You had been training to be a dentist, and, when war called you, you “answered unflinchingly,” joining the RAMC. You had dreamed of emigrating to Canada to live and work amongst fellow commonwealth citizens. I hold the postcard you wrote back to Ted and Lizzie, your siblings, from your visit to St Lawrence in August 1913. You dreamed of moving there for good, but, like me, you complained about doing your own laundry. And just over a year later, in a moment, your dream was gone, the trials of laundry long forgotten in the pain of war.
Elizabeth wrote to your regiment, yearning for details of your death, to comfort your parents. They received a letter, thought unbeknown to them, on the day of your death, written with sheer excitement as you described that you would be moving to a new hospital to take charge of a dressing station. Moving to the place that would be your place of death. Only, two days later, they heard again, from Archdeacon Southwell, that their beloved youngest son had died. Serjeant Beardsall replied on 16th October 1915, a man who knew you well, describing you most favourably as “a jolly chum, respected and loved as a MAN.” Yes, he put that in capitals. You “could always be relied upon to perform duty…you would be right there and do it like a man. Never could [you] be accused of shirking or cowardice.” In hope, he asked your family to “bear up under the affliction of the Almighty, in His wisdom, placed upon [them], until such time as He calls us all together again, in that promised blessed reunion where we believe there are no more sorrows and partings and where we shall all attain that peace which passeth our understanding.”
Holding your medals today, though I had struggled before, I saw how he could see a hope for heaven in the midst of the horror you faced on a daily basis. How you all needed to find a promised peace. How still today we must remember your sacrifice to truly see our own peaceful freedom.
I came to Belgium, to Lijssenthoek, around 4 years ago. I was young, and the horrors of what you faced did not pierce my innocent mind. War was still history, and it seemed easier to detach myself from your pain. But now I am 17. The same age as 150 000 British boys who fell. And this time, 100 years of days past seemed like very little at all.
We came to Belgium through France. I imagine you did too. Coming from Accrington, the journey down to London and across the Channel to the Continent must have been deeply exciting. Though, admittedly, it was not the journey you had wanted to make. Canada would have been far more thrilling, and would have held far more promise. But you made the journey, for your country’s sake, though it is probable that you would not have travelled by train, through the tunnel, at 7 am, eating ham and cheese sandwiches and singing Zadok the Priest. Perhaps you, laden down with possessions, bundled and crouched in a corner of a boat, alongside hundreds of others, would have laughed to see the ease of our journey.
And, after France’s topography, Belgium seemed awfully flat. With the sun beating down, we could see for miles. It was idyllic countryside, with emerald green grass newly tufting, and daffodils spotting the roadside, like little dashes of yellow paint. But as soon as we stepped off the coach, it was clear that this idyll was a façade, it was an ephemeral idyll still slashed with scars of your bitter world. Shell holes became evermore obvious to the eye, as rabbits and hares, running on a flat plain, disappeared from view and then resurfaced again. It was like a child had been let loose with a holepunch on the blank canvas of the countryside, where the soil of the fields is still fertile with your blood.
We visited the trenches, preserved as harrowing memory of your daily life. The juxtaposition of the trenches with the quiet wooded countryside brought the realisation of the sheer lack of greenery that you would have seen, and the perpetual mudbath that was the Salient. We felt claustrophobic as we crouched and inched our way through the passages, tunnels, and runs. Though it was staggeringly hot, the mud sucked at our shoes, and the mixture of the smell of rusting corrugated iron and muddy dung was choking. At my feet lay stagnant water, a deep brown colour, where dead flies circled in an incessant cycle. Our choirmaster’s face as his phone fell and was engulfed by the mud epitomised our 21st century horror at what we saw.
But then I remembered you. You who were fighting throughout winter, for whom these trenches were not just muddy at the sides, but on top of the boards, to halfway up your shins. For whom the trenches were filled with bodies, dead and alive, piled on top of each other. For whom there was no alternative to claustrophobia, no idyll to look out upon. For whom a hotel with hot showers, beds and cooked breakfasts to return to at the end of a long day was an untouchable dream. For whom a phone would have meant nothing; the Bible, photographs found next to your heart and your imagination were your lifeline. For whom the smell of putrid flesh mixed with dung, rust, blood, and more was far worse than what we could ever have experienced.
As we journeyed on we saw yet more spring greenery that you would never have known. When we stood at the top of the belfry in central Ypres, a reconstruction of the shattered shell you would have seen, and got lost on unknown roads, we could see lambs, goats and fatted bulls frolicking in the fields. Perhaps you never thought that Belgium could be beautiful. I expect it seemed more like hell to you. And it seems the beauty of today’s Belgium is underpinned by your hellish conditions. Your hellish suffering. Your hellish loss. It seemed that as we looked out on the country, every five seconds a new graveyard would appear. Sometimes small, with only 15 or 20 graves, sometimes expansive with more graves than the eye could count. It was painful to see. Your losses put into perspective our freedom, and the beauty we find in the Belgian nature. And yet, as we passed a row of pollarded trees, devoid of the green natural life that seemed omnipresent, each was felled. It was hard not to imagine them as soldiers, the men with whom you shared your life, drawn up in a line, each one falling to the sound of a single gunshot.
But I hope that beneath the pain of death, you would have smiled to see these graveyards. All your graves are white, pure and painless. Around each cemetery there are trees, and before each grave flowers, so that each is almost a garden of Eden. A peaceful paradise, where we can sit and remember you. The transcendant peace that Serjeant Beardsall spoke about in his letter. The sun shines, gleaming off the rows of graves. There we each find an inner peace, albeit derived from horror, with which we can learn to look beyond the pain. Each cemetery bears the cross of sacrifice. It is a memory both of Christ’s sacrifice, and your mortal sacrifice, that we might live freely. There is an altar, on which is inscribed ‘Their name liveth for evermore.’ And it is true. You all sacrificed yourselves. You have an individual grave, where your name, age and regiment is written. On the walls, and all around, are found your names. Every man is named, even if no body has been found for him. And if there is a body, but no name could be identified, the epitaph is simply ‘A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’ Because even if we cannot know – God does. And in heaven you shall live, known by God, forever in peace. And on earth your name shall live for evermore.
In such a way, visiting the German cemetery at Langemark was, for most, emotionally harder to deal with. Their cemetery, surrounded by the white peace offered by ours, is dark, shrouded with oaks, symbols of their strength, where up to 35 men are commemorated on one stone which is laid flat on the ground, as if symbolising the fallen men. There is a mass grave where 44061 men are buried. The darkness seemed to engulf the cemetery and the hope for peace in the future seemed intangible; the horror of war lingered. The stark difference between the two seemed to forge a greater gap between the men; the black and the white; the victors and the losers. But reading the names, though at first it was harder, I remembered that each had a story, just like you. They were just men, facing the same struggles and pain as you, both of you cannon fodder. They were all losers. As I looked over the wall of the cemetery, struggling to find peace, I saw a host of birds take flight into the blue sky, rising invisible into the sunlight, beyond the clouds. For me, seeing these birds was where I found hope. Just like our men, their spirits rose to heaven as one by one they fell for their country. In heaven we are all the same. We are all mankind, and in such a way we must try and close gaps of hatred, to find the peace we crave. We cannot afford further war in the world.
Perhaps no other monuments stand as greater testament to this than the remarkable Menin Gate in Ypres, and the Vimy Canadian Memorial. We learnt of Edward Kelly, goalkeeper of the 1st XI at our school, who had a History Exhibition to study at Merton College, Oxford. He left school in January 1915 on receiving a commission as an officer into the army. He was at the front line for less than four weeks before he died. His body was never found. And around him, the names of 54,388 other men who fell and have no known grave. He was 17. The same age as me, at the same school, wanting to achieve the same things. It is likely, on arrival, like you, he would have walked through the Porte de Menin, then bearing no memorial, excited and eager to face the reality of war beyond the town itself. As excited and eager as the cyclists of the same age who raced through the now majestic memorial on Sunday, racing to the finish line. But Edward Kelly never made it to the finish line. And neither did you. And neither did the thousands named on the Menin Gate. And neither did the thousands on the Vimy memorial, those with whom you had once hoped to live, in Canada.
And so, when we sang, at St Bavo’s Cathedral (Ghent), St Maartin’s Cathedral (Ypres), St George’s Memorial Church (Ypres) and the Menin Gate (Ypres), it truly felt that we were singing for you, in memory of you. You would have known some of the music we sang. As a fervent Christian, I have no doubt that you would have heard pieces such as Tallis’ Salvator mundi. Our 20th Century Chilcott and Paulus offerings would have been beyond you, but the sentiments offered, that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that who so believeth in him would have everlasting life’ would be known to you. The reassurance of Christ’s sacrifice so that you might enter heaven would have carried you through. And I have no doubt that at some point, lying drenched in mud, and covered in the blood of those you saved, and those who passed, you looked up and asked for The Road Home, pleading: View me Lord, and later, Miserere mei. Perhaps you even wondered what Insanae and Vanae Curae were casing you so be trapped so in this brutal war. Little did you know that it would go on for a further 3 years. As the music we sang floated up into the vast expanse of the buildings, especially at the Menin Gate, a serenity was easily found in suspended dissonance, slowly resolved to consonance. It felt like you were singing with us. As Mrs Hawkins of St George’s Memorial Church, Ypres said, hymns we sung like ‘All things bright and beautiful’ link people across countries, across centuries. Your souls, combined with ours, forever entwined, will sing for peace. Indeed, from visiting “Toc H,” we are all too aware how much singing meant to you. And so we give you, with you, what little we have, our exquisite musical offerings, harmonies of hope.
We laid white wreaths of fresh flowers at Tyne Cot, and at the Menin Gate, the two largest memorials to allied men who fell, to symbolise the peace and life that you have given us today. We visited the grave of N.G.Chevasse, an Olympian and vastly decorated medic who died in a similar way to you. Like you, he was a relative of one of the pupils on tour. There are so many like you. We visited your grave, and in the heat of the sun on my back, warming me, felt like your heavenly spirit with me. In a strange way, laying these wreaths and placing a cross at your grave felt like a degree of closure, both personally, and for the group: an acceptance of all that happened, and a cry for the maintenance of peace in our turbulent world. And I wept for you, and for all those who fell with you, and for all those who have fallen since.
And I said goodbye and returned home. A journey that you never made. It seems pertinent that the last anthem of the tour, sung at the New Brandenhoek Cemetery and later, to lull the sleepers, as the delayed Eurotunnel train burst into the light of England, was: For the Fallen.
You shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary you, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember you.
With a century’s worth of love and gratitude for your ultimate sacrifice,
Your great great niece.