Have you ever driven with a farmer? It’s a bit of an occupational hazard, for his wife at least. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many strings to his bow but seeing as land is his bread and butter, he is not shy in his description of the land before him on a drive. You might for example be driving around the most picturesque parts of this country and he’ll wonder how the poor creaturs can grow anything. Furthermore, driving through my former county of Cork, he wonders why I didn’t find myself a West Cork farmer (like marrying a farmer had been the plan!) for all their fine land. When he’s in farmer mode, in other words, sur-God-help-him-he’s-only-a-north-kerry-farmer mode. It doesn’t happen often, only when his batteries need changing.
It was on one such drive, in Northern France of all places, six years ago, that he discussed the fertility of the Somme’s acerage. We were on a mission you see. My mother’s Grand Uncle Benjamin had been killed in 1916 during the First World War and a promise to find him and say a prayer over his grave needed fulfilling. My Grandmother had promised her mother she’d find him, my mother had promised hers and when my turn came to do something, I had technology at hand to easily, relatively, find him. Overnight, we had found a photo of his grave online and it’s exact location in a cemetery in the Somme to finally get the job done. Yes, a reminder that technology really is marvelous.
The land in the Somme, I had to agree was incredible. As it was freshly ploughed tillage land, it looked like a healthy head of brown hair freshly combed. Rolling brown December hills surrounded our hire car for many acres as we drove through the former sites of many many battles. Sites where many young sons, brothers, fathers and lovers had lost their very young lives in World War One. It was hard to imagine in the absolute beauty and peace of this lovely land that it once had been the stage for such destruction of young lives. You couldn’t imagine anything above the noise of a combine harvester were it not for the cemeteries. So many cemeteries. Beautifully maintained, ordered, white cemeteries around every corner.
My Great Grand Uncle’s grave sat amongst so many others in the quiet of the Northern French countryside. We realised how lucky we were to find him as many of his neighbouring bedfellows had neither name or rank to their headstones. So many unknown soldiers lying anonymously in the field around him. Each one however, honoured in the same way. In neat rows with white marble headstones with flowers perfectly tended above their heads. But for these vast reminders, we would have been looking and praising the finest agricultural land in France. He could have contined to praise this beautiful land were in not for the haunting, not of ghosts or any such myth but of the haunting futility of the many many lost lives buried in this land.
My Great Great Grandmother had only recieved the King’s notice of her son’s death along with some medals for his bravery on the field. But that was it. She never saw where he lay, the beauty of his surrounds, how he lay like an older uncle, deceased at age thirty three among the many men of sixteen or seventeen who would never see their mothers again. One hundred years on since his death, she lay herself so much land and sea away in another cemetary as we prayed and as my mother shed some tears on behalf of this mother and her son lying in the fields of France.