A few days ago, soil from the battlefields of Flanders- soil that, chemically and spiritually- carries the indelible impression of war and the fragmentary remains of so many soldiers- was brought back to England.
They brought it back on a Belgian war ship, for which the bascules of the Tower Bridge were raised (as much in honor as to let the massive ship go through).
Among those represented by that soil, no doubt, are the hundreds of men from 2nd KSLI with no known graves. They are listed on the Menin Gate on panels 47 and 49, mainly, and most of the casualties date from the early spring of 1915… around the time of the assaults on Hill 60.
As much angst as it has brought me to recall the life of one who survived Hill 60 only to die months later in a quiet sector, I can’t begin to imagine how it would feel if John had been standing only a few yards to either side, because all I would have is a vague sense that I’d been there and nothing to say who I was or where I was from.
A good many of the reincarnated tommies I’ve met have to deal with that reality, and I was told early on by a sympathetic friend with a great knowledge of the Western Front to expect as much.
For me, I guess the sting of “survivor’s guilt” is tempered by the fact that I didn’t survive the war, but I never lose sight of the fact that I’m extremely fortunate to have a name and a grave to refer to. I probably lost a night or two of sleep over that when I finally found John’s grave but in the end, it was a degree of cold comfort.
But the luckiest of all are those who only remember second-hand, who stand in silent reverence at bags of soil that carry tiny fragments of their ancestors and past lives. They have never lost a single night of sleep and I hope they never will.