I’ve walked past many, many war memorials, not just over the last few weeks, but over my everyday life. Rothwell cenotaph, the memorial I drive past on my way to the Leeds pals volunteering group, the cenotaph in the centre of Leeds and (most recently – today in fact) the memorial garden in Filey. It got me thinking about all the times, as a child, that I’ve walked past these statues, these places of remembrance and never once given them another thought. As a child, you don’t. They’ve always been there, in a way. They’ve always been a part of the village or the town or the city.
In Rothwell, atop the memorial stands a soldier who looks to be a Captain perhaps, his eyes on his boots, his rifle with the barrel down, a moment of silent contemplation for those who did not return. In Leeds, an angel stands at the highest point of the cenotaph, St. George and the dragon on one side, Peace as a young girl at the other. Two very different images. One of quiet contemplation, of solemnity and reflection – another of winged beasts, of angels and might. Two meanings, perhaps. One of sorrow and one (in my eyes) that can be seen as a somewhat stylised vision of glory.
But then when I started to really look at them, I noticed something.
There’s a strange kind of silence around them. Even if they’re at the side of the road, like the one near Chadwick Street in Leeds, somewhere where the traffic roars past, even then there is something infinitely quiet about the space. It’s hard to communicate it in words. It’s a similar kind of silence to that which descends on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, a silence that fits. A silence that fills ones thoughts, that echoes in the air and places a blanket over everything. The silence does not echo, it simply is.
It was this silence that I felt, that filled me to the brim when I visited the Menin Gate and the Thiepval Memorial to the missing when I was in France. The sheer scale of it becomes all too overpowering when confronted with wall after wall, covered with names – and these are just of those who were missing. It’s a feeling that chokes you when you look up at a wall where there is name after name, some of men who might have been from your village, town or city. It’s almost a sense of acute loss, of the sheer bloody hopelessness that engulfs you.
I found myself on the verge of tears a lot that week. There were many points where I had to leave my relatives behind to sit alone, to think and to be alone with that which I feel I can rightly describe as grief. Because the tears then, they were shed in grief, in loss and sadness. It’s a sense of eerie quiet that clings to these places, an uncomfortable peace. Even driving past the cemeteries – the roads are quiet and the feeling reaches out even then.
Across ninety-some years, a yawning ache that does not demand to be noticed, but instead slips quietly into your thoughts and perhaps a few moments later, with the background noise nothing but a hardly registered murmur, you might find yourself with a lump in your throat.
I know I did.