DPhil Diaries Six: On Anniversaries and Birthdays

On Wednesday evening of this week I found myself at a loose end. I wanted to go somewhere, but I wasn't sure where or what I wanted to do. It was the 5th June and I had been seeing coverage of the D-Day commemorations across my Twitter feed all day. In the end I decided that I would cycle over to Botley War Cemetery on the edge of Oxford. It contains 170 burials from the First World War alongside some 570 from the Second.

Almost as soon as I set off, it typically started to rain and by the time I was on the main road it was chucking down, meaning that I was thoroughly drenched once I arrived.

I immediately started to think how bonkers it was that this was my choice of how to spend the evening, cycling through the rain to visit the graves of people long-since dead to whom I have no personal connection. Yet for me (and also for many others, as I have been fortunate enough to find through Twitter) this is entirely rational.

This week in military history sees two big anniversaries: D-Day (6th June 1944) and the Battle of Messines (7th June 1917).  The Seventh also happens to be my birthday.

I've always felt quite a connection to Messines as a battle and I do think it's somewhat indescribably linked to the fact it happened on my birthday. I clearly remember on my very first battlefields trip aged 13, some of the first stops my school group made were in those cemeteries around Wytschaete. In particular, I remember standing in Lone Tree Cemetery and realising that these were all men killed on that date which holds such a happy prominence for me. There's no reason why that one date should be any more significant than any other, yet I do always find myself coming back to reading about Messines, studying those involved, and cycling the battlefront in a way that I don't for other battles even in the same area.

Those cemeteries now hold a slightly different significance than they did on my first trip. As I turn 24 this 7th June, here lie many men who did not live that long, or who did not survive much after. And 30 years later, here was mass killing again, with another generation of young men expected to sacrifice themselves for their country. It is impossible to imagine how my generation, myself and my peers, would react in that situation.

So that brings me back to the rainy cemetery beside the Oxford ring road, taking cover in the CWGC's Portland stone shelter. Maybe this isn't a joyous way to spend an evening (especially as I wasn't wearing a rain coat!), but it is nonetheless really interesting. I know my friends all think I'm bonkers when I go off on my own to the battlefields for a week at a time, and I would be reticent to call it 'fun', but I do find it fascinating.

I find that there is that continual pull to see and to try to understand history and especially the First World War. To remember those soldiers who lie beneath the rows of white headstones and to know how and why it was that they fought and died. Those buried here in Botley from the First World War are the casualties from the 3rd Southern General Hospital, which was housed for the war in the university's Examination Schools.Those from the Second World War are local Air Force deaths, including those of airmen from other nations.

A passion for war history is also, of course, not all death and loss. Both Messines and D-Day were Allied victories, not to mention some of the innumerable demonstrations of bravery and strength. So, in that wet cemetery, I thought back to the sunshine of late March when I visited Oosttaverne, the successful target of Messines, and further back to the childhood summer holiday I spent playing on Normandy beaches and exploring the remains of those coastal battlefields.

Eventually, the rain did dry up and out came the golden evening sun, allowing me to take a closer look at the graves. Here lie soldiers including Second Lieutenant William Esmy Wiggins of the Leicestershire Yeomanry, who died aged 23 in August 1916, and Sapper George Arthur Maynard Scales, who was just 22 when he died on 18th December 1915. Scales served with the New Zealand Engineers, having travelled halfway around the world from Wellington.

There's also a few Belgian graves interspersed among those of the Commonwealth, with headstones that are much darker and more elaborate. They include Godefroid D.G. De Kan, who was presumably evacuated from the Belgian front due to the wounds which he was to die from on 4th November 1914.

The Second World War graves show even further internationalism. For instance, here lies Flying Officer PD Lidster (aged 23), navigator of the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with Pte T Lagos of the Greek Army, Captain S. Stankowski of the Polish Forces, and Dutchman H.J.P. Jansen. There's also a plot of German graves, including one unknown.

Being a cemetery used for those who died from wounds or in aircraft incidents, there's a real diversity in the burials across both regions and time periods. Yet all are maintained to the CWGC's typically high standard and, despite the main road roaring in the background, it is a calm spot and fitting tribute to all of their service.

"They died so we may be free" is a phrase often trotted out in remembrance, but it is one that holds truth. As we remember the "big" anniversary occasions, like D-Day's 75th, and those which receive less media attention, like Messines' 102nd, as well as personal milestones and occasions, I am reminded of our fortunes that we don't have to worry about such war. As I turn 24, I am privileged that I don't have to risk my life for my country: a fortune sadly not shared by all across the world.

After paying my respects and with my only concern being the minor annoyance of getting soaked by the rain, I cycled back to college in time to watch Love Island. Because life's all about balance, right?


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