What happened when the Great War ended and the guns stopped firing? Who cleared the battlefields and built the great monuments to the fallen? And why did so many men who served - and survived - in France and Flanders end up living and working among the ruins of the war they'd fought?
The Glorious Dead is the fictional story of a group of soldiers who remained in France and Flanders following the Armistice, who served their King and country with a shovel and who found and buried the thousands of bodies abandoned on the road to victory. It is the story of men living among the destruction, death and decay of the so-called ‘war to end all wars’. It is the story of an uneasy peace as over 15,000 ex-servicemen remain abroad working in the former theatres of war, burying the dead and rebuilding their own lives. The work of these men is one of the most original yet neglected aspects of this most compelling era in our nation’s history.
Theirs is a story worth telling.
Beside the old Ypres-Roulers railway, south of St Julien, the shattered relic of a copse called Wild Wood contains the remains of seventeen men killed in the heat of battle and buried hurriedly among the blackened stumps of trees. Over a year-and-a-half later, little has changed. The splintered wood is still the only feature on an otherwise empty, bombed-out landscape on the road to Poelcapelle.
‘Some men of the 10th Battalion Gordon Highlanders are buried…’ Ingham pauses before jabbing a finger at a square on the map that indicates their ultimate destination this mild, spring morning, ‘…here!’
The men lean over the concertinaed canvas spread over the bonnet of the truck parked temporarily in the middle of the cobbles of the old Grote Markt. Behind them are the surviving walls of the old Cloth Hall; beyond that, the rubble of St Martin’s Cathedral. Pillars and doorways remain shored up with timber buttresses; wooden scaffolding surrounds the remnants of the bell tower.
‘So just a simple exhumation job this morning, eh sir?’ Ocker asks. ‘Dig ‘em up and bring ‘em in.’
‘Correct,’ says Ingham.
This is the kind of work they like. Simple; straightforward. Map references; digging; re-burying. Not the searching, not the wandering, the constant prodding with improvised probes made from old machine-gun cleaning rods, the emptying of pockets, the checking muddy teeth.
‘According to our information they were killed during the initial phase of the advance to Pilkem Ridge and were buried here…’
‘…on 31st July 1917,’ Mac says. ‘Aye, I know.’ The men slowly turn their heads and stare at Mac, then back at Ingham.
‘Correct, Private MacIntyre. I ought to have realised.’
‘Realised what?’ Fuller whispers. ‘Realised what?’
Ocker shakes his head and holds a finger to his lips.
‘Anyway,’ Ingham goes on. ‘These men - these brave men - are to be transferred to White House Cemetery at St. Jean. Graves have already been prepared for them in the concentration area, Plot III. It’s a little higher than the battlefield burials so should be better drained.’
‘Which row, sir?’
‘Which row? Now let me see, row… row… Row H. Yes.’
‘And are they known, sir?’
‘I believe so, yes. Their details were recorded at the time…’ Ingham looks across the bonnet of the truck at Mac, who is studiously lighting a pipe. ‘And the graves have survived. Sergeant Townend and I located them while on reconnaissance the other day.’
‘Very good sir.’
The men dismiss and begin gathering their equipment together: sacks and shovels, jerry cans filled with cresol, seventeen canvas sheets, some ropes and pairs of rubber gloves.
‘You will supervise the exhumation. I will meet you at White House Cemetery at 1430 hours with the Chaplain.’
‘Very good sir.’
The men climb aboard the truck. Jack and Ocker load their bicycles on board as well, standing them between the wooden shelves that line each side of the wagon. There won’t be room on board for all the living on the journey home.
‘So what was it like Mac?’ asks Fuller as the truck bounces off along the cobbles. ‘Was it… did you? I mean…’
‘I know what you darn well mean laddie,’ Mac growls. ‘And well, I’ll tell ye shall I? Shall I? D’you really want to know?’
Fuller suddenly doesn’t seem so sure. Jack and Ocker look at each other.
‘For once,’ Mac begins, ‘on the morning of 31st July, you might have said things were going well. The bombardment had been good…’
‘That makes a change,’ Ocker interrupts. Mac glares at him and he looks down at the floor.
‘… the weather was dry too, that first morning.’
‘That was soon to change,’ says Jack.
‘Who’s telling the laddie this story?’ Mac grumbles.
‘Sorry Mac.’Read more...
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