Foreign Fields

28Oct08

Two boys with acne and no more than 17 years-old were doing scooter wheelies on the pavements opposite the Mairie in Haucourt.

Shutters in homes and shops were closed on the road from Cambrai. But was this evidence of a French credit crunch or just late afternoon in a village where perhaps boredom vied with ambition for adventure away from narrow-minded parents at home?

Manuel and Patience Cake of St. Johns, Newfoundland waved off their young son Alfred some time in 1916: With 12,000 fellow countrymen, he was a boy with a head full of patriotism, rushing to a new war of empires.

Much closer to this French field than Alfred Cake’s home in Canada, Albert Cooke aged 21 also said final farewells to his family in Camberwell, south London. Whether both Privates Cake and Cooke ever met in a water-filled ditch near Arras is of course fantasy but both now share a few inches of tilled French clay at the commonwealth memorial at Vis-en-Artois.

To the north the sun sank over a pasture where horses grazed and the regimented rows of silver birch stood like a battalion of scared men. Over a low wall were the markers and names of 9,902 other commonwealth youths, killed in the war’s closing violent gestures. They too may have dreamed of escaping small town England or Australia, where exploding shells boomed across wide oceans and acres of newsprint.

The local gardener locked away his worn tools in the shed and beckoned to hand me a damp copy of L’Echo: (“Ils sont venus du monde entier”), a local 90th war anniversary newspaper. He’s been tending these graves and their razor-cornered grass verges since 2000 and had a distant stare, as if working on his own among the deaths of foreign men has left him disturbed in some unreachable way.

Leaning on the hedge, he sighed. “Ah ouais, c’etait la boucherie .. ils ne connaits rien.” He then showed me the headstone of his youngest occupant: A.E. Cake, 2463, 1st Bn. Royal Newfoundland Regiment, killed 14th April 1917, age 16.

Of the 57,000 allied killed in the Somme on July 1st 1916, only 68 out of 801 Newfoundlanders (with 14 sets of brothers) survived the butchering by machine gun fire. So impressed were their colonial British masters, that they bestowed on them the dubiously posthumous regimental honour of Royal. Cake was perhaps a later renforcement but the Newfoundlanders were known as Blue Puttees. The mud in No mans’ land at Beaumont-Hamel would have been speckled blue with their distinctive blue leggings and red with their commonwealth blood.

We took our War Graves Commission memorial sheet over to panel 10 and craned our necks up to where the London Regiment’s (Royal Fusiliers) names are stacked vertically like bygone tennis champions at public school. Instead, these were largely the lower-ranks. Pvte. Cooke A. 253826, killed 8th August 1918 was just a chiselled name fading on the creamy wall of this Lutyens-style mausoleum. He would have become my great-Uncle Bert – or Bertie – my grandmother’s younger brother, whose family once lived a mortar-range from where we coincidentally live now.

Calais edged past our Seafrance ferry window and I looked over to my son with a lollypop-bulged cheek, reading Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. 90 years ago Albert Cooke might have made the same journey back to Grove Lane, Camberwell by troop ship in the winter of 1918. Met a local girl, had a son himself who was to die at the hands of the Wehrmacht in ’44. Like Harry Patch, Britain’s last survivor of the Great War, Albert might have paid his own respects to friends .. if he hadn’t have succumbed just four weeks before the Armistice. And Alfred Cake too. What might have become of him back in Cabot Street, St. Johns? A farm-owner or local dignitary. Or an old man with a vacant stare who never again spoke of the horrors on the road to Arras.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England ..

.. A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

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One Response to “Foreign Fields”


  1. 1 Renaissance « England’s Pleasant Pastures

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