Sunday, November 22, 2009

Remembering the War Dead

Hautrage Military Cemetery, Belgium

Just outside the village of Hautrage, Belgium, on the road to St.-Ghislain, there's a small military cemetery. On Nov. 5, a few days before what's called Remembrance Day in those parts, i.e., Nov. 11, I stopped in there.

Here in the States we remember our war dead on Memorial Day and honor all our military and naval veterans on Nov. 11, once called Armistice Day. Nov. 11 is of course the anniversary of the day the armistice ending World War I took effect: at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

At the gate (above) it is marked simply in 2 languages "Hautrage Military Cemetery 1914-1918." This being Belgium, you might expect those 2 languages to be French and Flemish. Hautrage, by the way, is in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium--just a few miles from the French border, in fact. But the 2 languages are German (left post) and English (right). And all of the war dead within are German and British.

In what was called at the time "the Great War," death didn't care what uniform a man wore. I didn't count the graves, but it seemed to me that the numbers were about equal. The small, dark crosses are all German graves, and the large white stones are all British.

At what appears to be an official Web site for the cemetery (, which I discovered thru Google in mid-December, I found this information:

For almost the whole of the war Hautrage was in German hands and this cemetery was started by them in August 1914, it was later used in 1918 when they concentrated the graves of many British soldiers killed in 1914 and buried on the surrounding battlefields or in local cemeteries here. After the armistice, graves were brought here from other cemeteries in the area.

That Web site also gives these stats: there are 773 graves, of which 538 are German, the rest U.K. So much for my impression of "about equal" numbers!

Inside there's a memorial from the Belgian people (above), reading in 3 languages (English and German on the front, French on the back): "The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the Belgian people for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied armies who fell in the war of 1914-1918 and are honoured here."

In case you don't remember your history, Belgium attempted to remain neutral while most of Europe was rushing fearfully, unwillingly, and witlessly into war in August 1914 (read Barbara Tuchman's classic, The Guns of August). But that didn't work because the Germans invaded anyway in order to attack the undefended border with France since their own border with France was heavily defended. The Belgians paid an awful price--every city, town, and village has its own war monument with a long list of the dead--and appreciated their defense and eventual liberation by the Allied armies, as they would in a later and much worse war.

As you can tell, the cemetery is well tended. I think that's always the case, and not just in the week before Remembrance Day. But there were fresh flowers at several grave sites of both nationalities (above, below), and in at least one case, a photo.

All of the British gravestones with names on them indicate the regiment to which the fallen soldier or officer belonged, and most also have a short phrase, probably selected by the family, such as "His glory is eternal," "There is no death; what seems so is transition," and from Job, "There the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest."

If you're able to enlarge this picture of German grave markers, you'll see that they're anonymous: "Ein Deutscher Soldat." It seemed to me--again, without my having counted anything--that perhaps as many as half of the German were similarly marked, and a third of the British graves, "A Soldier of the Great War...Known unto God."

Not that that anonymity was anything new. You can visit any of our Civil War cemeteries and see the same, or the War of 1812 cemetery at Sackett's Harbor, N.Y. I guess we became more sensitive to the question during WWI, which is when the idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier arose. Happily, the problem has been resolved in so-called modern warfare (would that we could resolve THAT problem) by DNA testing, and there haven't been any unknown American casualties in the Gulf Wars or Afghanistan.

All of these German and British dead fell in two battles, one in late August 1914 as the Germans were driving thru Belgium toward France, and one in early November 1918 as they were being driven back to the Fatherland. Some of the men actually died after Armistice Day, presumably from wounds suffered earlier or from illness.

It is of course striking to see these enemy soldiers lying in peace together, and both British and German memorial books kept at the cemetery gate. Needless to say, I uttered prayers throughout my visit that they might be enjoying eternal peace.

Requiescant in pace!

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