ON A day when all manner of people  turned out to publicly and conspicuously commemorate ANZAC Day, marching, singing, praying, dressing up in uniform, waving flags, wearing medals, beating drums, playing trumpets, bagpipes and horns,then gathering noisily with family and regiment mates in waterholes from Gallipoli to Goondiwindi to Greymouth, I dug deep to gather my thoughts of war and the fallen in my garden.

I thought of the solace and comfort that trees and plants give to the families and loved ones of those buried in war graves all over the world and the peace and beauty they lend to the final resting place  of the thousands of young servicemen and servicewomen lying there.  The calm and serenity of the gorgeous parks and vistas that organisations like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission work so splendidly to maintain,  are an abject contrast to their former life as a battlefield where those who lie there now met a noisy and messy death.

There are tens of thousands of Australians buried in marked and unmarked graves in 82 countries. Many thousands more of all nationalities lie in foreign lands bearing a headstone that may or may not identify them.

The war cemeteries’ groomed and majestic walkways, the silence except for the twitter of birds, rustle of branches and whispers of visitors evoke a solemnity that is both soothing and  stark. You can be mesmerised, even charmed,  by the neat and precise rows, crisp white headstones, carpets of lush lawn until jolted by the realisation that you are walking on a huge waste of young lives. So many  mere boys who for all their dignified and honoured resting place, were robbed of  years of feeling the sun on their face, the wind at their back and their family’s loving arms to grow old in.

The sharply manicured grassways at Varennes cemetery, France are softened by the delicate pink roses, tendered lovingly to almost year-round bloom.

I hope the  bright scattering cherry blooms at Bordon Military Cemetery, Hampshire are a balm for the families of the young Australians, Canadians and South Africans buried there.

Fallen World War II German soldiers and internees are honoured on British soil at the lovely Cannock Chase cemetery, Staffordshire. The shadows that fall across the paths to their graves carry the patterns of lovely beech and oak branches, their reflective shade contrasting to the bright lights of so many lives forever dimmed.

The serene and beautiful wooded park of Bedford House Cemetery, near Ypres, in Belgium has a grace and distinctive feel, enhanced by the bright red geraniums among the tombstones.

Bedford House Cemetery Belgium

Bedford House Cemetery Belgium

Perhaps the most poignant and sombre is the mass grave at Langemark, in the Flanders region of Belgium where 24,900 German soldiers lie in  mass grave,  known as the comrades grave. More than  7000 of these are unknown. Most of them were inexperienced German infantry who perished in the first futile battle at Ypres against the British and French in World War I.  Majestic oak trees line the site, standing guard over the fallen and a rose garden thrives there. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, enhanced by the German choice of black granite for headstones, in contrast to the Allies’ choice of white marble.

Langemark Cemetery Belgium mass grave rose garden

Langemark Cemetery Belgium mass grave rose garden. The bronze figures at the rear.

Touching addition are four slightly larger than life size shadowy bronze figures, sculpted by Emil Krieger, who says he was inspired by a picture of grieving soldiers at the graveside of a comrade. The four stand eerily at attention,  and silhouetted against the countryside,  make a memorable impact on visitors.

The soothing air at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire where German war dead lie.

The soothing air at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire where German war dead lie.

Pink peace surrounds graves at Bordon Military cemetery, Hampshire

Soft pink peace surrounds graves at Bordon Military cemetery, Hampshire

Grassways and roses at Varennes military cemetery, France

Grassways and roses at Varennes military cemetery, France

And to demonstrate just how big a part the trees and their spread and shade play in the ambience of all these solemn sites,  the 60 distinctive spreading hornbeam (carpinus betulus)  trees were removed four years ago at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery, France to devastating effect. The row of 81-year old trees were dying, so were taken out in 2009.

However,  their replacements are developing well for the town’s battle centenary commemorations in 2018.

Walking under the shadows and past the lovely plantings, to read the epitaphs is almost too sad and painful, but one on the grave of Private John Thomas Holdroyd is worded to speak succinctly for all the ache left in hearts back home: “Too far away thy grave to see

  But not too far to think of thee.”

Before and after the horbbeam hedges were removed at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery

Before and after the hornbeam hedges were removed at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery

4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    amsoliman said,

    What a lovely tribute, Julie. I saw 2 touching memorials in the last few days. One was a primary school in England where since WW1 the children initiated the placing of flowers on the graves of Aussie soldiers, many of whom actually died of the Spanish flu before they could be shipped home. Since then annually on Anzac Day, each child has a posy to place on a grave & reflect on how sad for the families that they are so far away.. lovely…

    The other was at Senadak in Boeneo where only a handful of POWs survived the horrific Japanese death marches (they weren’t given any food but were expected to forage for frogs, grass etc at the end of each day. They’ve erected a beautiful memorial in a tropical garden settings & from Aussie donations beautiful stain glass windows were made for the local church in remembrance. That was on geraldine Doogue’s last Compass.

    Thanks A x

  2. 2

    Jean Wethmar said,

    Beautiful post, as always Julie.. well done! x Made me think of an article I so enjoyed a short while ago.. .. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/opinion/sunday/a-year-in-trees.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1& – hugs x j

  3. 4

    Christine Bradshaw said,

    Really loved your article on war graves in beautiful settings so right to never forget ANZAC Chris

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