By Ted Dentay
Military cemeteries, not often the subject of dinner or social conversation, become most sanguine on November 11. Politely, and with the hushed overtones that accompany lip service … lips perhaps dabbed in advance with fine linen napkins … the realities of politics, religion, cultural philosophies, sacrifice, and suffering, usually lost in casual repartee, are well reflected throughout the cemeteries of World War One if one has the eyes, intellectual wit, or desire to see.
How this war even influenced English-language cultural vernacular is a classic, albeit largely unknown, story. For example, the British expressions of “plonk” and “bully beef” came from the rations of the 1914–1918 period. French troops got generous rations of wine called Pinard along with ratatouille, a disgusting vegetable soup. For some reason, Commonwealth troops adopted the name plonk for cheap red wine and it is a word that exists to this day … a century later. French troops also received iron rations in the form of tins of boeuf bouillé (boiled beef). Commonwealth troops, never adroit with ‘foreign’ languages, couldn’t pronounce the words so they reduced it to bully beef.
Physically, one can find forensic evidence of the nearby battles that, even today, can tell many tales. Oddly enough, a single small arms cartridge can provide limitless tales of the politics and sciences of the time.Most 1914–1918 period military cemeteries are tended by respective combatant nations such as France, Belgium, the Commonwealth, and the United States. In many cases, they are in close proximity to where the soldiers fell, attested to by the remains of materiel and unexploded ordnance that lay just beneath the cratered surface of the soil.
Vimy Ridge, with its stunning monument, is perhaps the best known of all Canadian cemeteries. But Canadian war history is also graven into much smaller stones and with much less fanfare. For example, at the Tyne Cot Cemetery — the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery and located adjacent to Passchendaele Ridge — two interesting reflections on the war lie close to one another, each with a vastly different history.
In one place lies Corporal J.T. Johnson, Regimental Number 794, age 23, who served with the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Battery and who died on October 30, 1917. His unit, part of the Canadian Machine Gun Corps, was likely deployed with one of the T. Eaton Company’s (a now-defunct department store chain, headquartered out of Toronto) 15 privately purchased Jeffery armoured cars.
In an ostensibly patriotic gesture, Sir John Eaton provided $100,000 — a huge sum in July 1915 — for 15 of the very first purpose-built armoured vehicles ever used in warfare. Ultimately, with Canadian government contributions, 25 of these armoured cars were bought from the Thomas B. Jeffery Co. of Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Cpl Johnson’s family home was located at 233 Ashdale Ave., a semi-detached house in what has become Toronto’s “The Beach” neighbourhood. His very low serial number means that he must have been first in the recruitment line on the day war was declared. Today, there is no evidence of the commemorative bronze plaque that once fronted the homes of war dead after 1918.
A few rows away from Cpl Johnson lies Dominick Naplova, a Canadian Pioneer and Czech national who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His story is also fascinating.
As a teenager, Naplova wanted to join the fight but was turned away from every door he knocked on. Ultimately, he sailed for the U.S. hoping to get into the fray via that route. Because the U.S. did not enter the war until 1917 he was forced, once again, to search elsewhere. Thus he came to Canada, became quickly naturalized, joined up and was duly sent overseas. He was one of the last casualties before the capture of Passchendaele.
Ironically the U.S., which had declared war on Germany on April 4, 1917, then declared war against Austria-Hungary on December 7 of that same year. Ironically again, this is the first of two important December 7 milestones in American history, the latter being the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Private Naplova could have fought with American troops but for his timing.
That Germany was defeated is reflected today by the somewhat cavalier fashion in which remains of their soldiers are buried. This only becomes apparent when you run across a cemetery containing hundreds of crosses or memorial stones to find it actually contains thousands of war dead. That’s when you notice that each marker has up to eight names engraved on it in some cemeteries — four to each side — while virtually all other combatants’ war dead are individually buried, even those whose names were never linked to the interred remains.
German cemeteries speak volumes on their culture and philosophies by what is said on their monuments. They are also illustrative of both the realities of the time and of today, both by what is said and left unsaid.
What is said expresses the endless poignancy of war from their perspective. What is left unsaid are changes that took place in the post–1918 years.
German markers throughout the Western Front often have sayings (translated from German):
I had a friend/comrade. A better one you would never find.
Whosoever meets the Holy Ghost/Spirit becomes one of God’s children.
So thereafter remains belief, hope, and love. [Of] These three love is the greatest under you.
Love is stronger than death.
Here rests our hero.
What is left unsaid? Lots. The singular gravesites of impressed labourers, such as Russian POWs, buried next to their overseers, yet today tended and planted with ivy, flowers, and with much greater care than those of the plainly manicured, undecorated lawns of the massed German graves.
Not all German war dead cemeteries are well tended. It was a bizarre moment when, in mid-August 2014, there was a high-level meeting between German and French political leaders at the peak of the Hartmannswillerkopf battlefield. Yet, barely three kilometres away downslope lies the cemetery at Eherenfriedhof, hidden in the now-regenerated Vosges forest.
Political matters are also an understated part of German war cemeteries. If only “they” — the Jews who fell for the Fatherland — had known what was going to happen.
Their headstones, tablets actually, are oddly out of order within the otherwise perfectly serried ranks of steel German crosses, eight names to a cross. When viewing the sites, one can also appreciate their relatively few numbers and what a sacrifice it ultimately was for them. Germany also suffered the loss of the “cream” of their generation, if noble titles are any indication. Just south of Guise, France, one monument is dedicated to eight officers, among them four barons. The translated inscription reads: “
In the slaughter/battle of Colonfay, [these men have] fallen or died from their wounds.”
Sometimes very discreet changes have been made to German war dead monuments. One example is the monument to the cavalry battle for Halen, Belgium, known as the Battle of the Silver Helmets. Now located in the middle of a farm field, the monument used to say, “Hier ruhen gefallene Deutsche soldaten” (Here rest fallen German soldiers). However, after the remains of the soldiers were moved elsewhere, “ruhen” (rest) was chiselled out and replaced with “ruhten” (rested).
Discretion was not in the French mind when the memorial to Caporal Jules André Peugeot was erected in Joncherey, France. Peugeot was the first, official soldier to be killed in action (KIA) of World War One. This bold and brash memorial was demolished by the Germans early in World War Two, and later rebuilt by the French.
By contrast, the first German KIA of World War One, Lt. Albert Mayer, killed in the same engagement as Peugeot some 30 hours before the official declaration of war was made, occupies a tiny plot in an out-of-the-way German war cemetery near the town of Illfurth, France.
French cemeteries tell an interesting political tale. French colonial troops, usually from Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, and other African countries, are honoured with tablet headstones engraved in Arabic. Non-French nationals who fell in combat are marked as having died for the country (mort pour la patrie) while French nationals are marked to have died for France (mort pour la France).
Despite their late entry into World War One and their relative inexperience in a war of this scale, American troops acquitted themselves well. American cemeteries equally represent their own casualties and are beautifully maintained in their memory.
Echoes of ‘what was’ can be inferred from some Commonwealth cemeteries’ gravestones. For example, there’s the stone for Private Peter Pitchfork of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who died at the age of 22 in 1916. You could easily imagine the classic regimental sergeant-major, moustache bristling, spittle flying, giving a dressing down of Private Pitchfork on parade before disembarkation and inches from his perplexed face:
“PRIVATE BLOODY PITCHFORK???!!!! What kind of git, idiot parents would name you PETER-BLOODY-PITCHFORK, Private? God strike me dead if I shouldn’t just put you out of your misery meself! Save the damned Boche the effort! Twat name!“
Today it takes quite the leap of imagination to picture what was happening exactly 100 years ago … to the hour and day. The scenes are so bucolic. The mine crater of St. Eloi, just south of Ypres, is a case in point.
On private property but accessible to the public, the famous crater is now a pond surrounded by manicured lawns while, over the hedge to the south, fields of Brussels sprouts grow as far as the eye can see. A century ago, it was part of the Battle of Messines, when 19 of 21 explosive charges deeply buried beneath German lines were detonated at the same time on June 7, 1917. One of the largest was at St. Eloi: 96,000 pounds of ammonal, the most powerful explosive then known, made a crater measuring 176 feet in diameter.
At 0310 hrs the British Second Army under General Sir Herbert Plumer started an attack that resulted in the capture of the whole of the Messines Ridge on the south side of the Ypres Salient. In the days leading up to Zero Hour, 100,000 men of the Second Army were lying in position waiting to attack. A loud bang was followed seven seconds later by a continuous series of huge explosions that tore at the German front line. The explosions were so destructive that British soldiers some 400 meters away were rocked off their feet.
Nine divisions of British infantry advanced through the clouds of smoke and dust and within minutes, the whole of the German front line was in British hands. Three hours later, the whole of the Messines Ridge was taken. No official figures were ever released regarding German casualties, but 7,354 prisoners were taken and a reported 10,000 went missing; over 6,000 were known dead. British casualties numbered 16,000, of which about 30 per cent were killed.
But those echoes have died. World War One is no longer within living memory. All we have now are what remain of an incredibly stupid episode in human history — The War That Did Not End All Wars, despite expressions to the contrary. The cemeteries say it in spades; the relics support it in spades.
The voiceless have a final voice. We will remember the friends we never made and raise a toast to absent friends …