This afternoon we visited Tyne Cot, the world’s largest Commonwealth war graves cemetery. On the short drive from Ypres, we passed the sites of several battlefields, a few smaller war cemeteries, and a war museum. This area was right in the midst of the fighting during the terrible Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, during 1917. We stopped briefly at Polygon Wood, where thankfully the forest that was obliterated during the fighting has regenerated, but we did not visit the cemetery here. All around it is silent – just hectare upon hectare of rustic Flemish farmland – yet here, just over a century ago, young men were dying in their thousands for a cause they probably never fully understood.
Tyne Cot is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is beautifully kept and respectfully maintained. The green lawns have been mowed, the lawn edgings trimmed, small flowering plants accompany each gravestone, and every gravestone is in pristine condition. Australians, Canadians, British and South Africans lay side by side, rather than in sections assigned to each country. Some gravestones bear the names of the fallen, which must have been of some comfort to their families, but many do not. Instead, their gravestones simply state ‘A Soldier of the Great War’. We found this particularly sad.
A curved wall bears the names of those who died but whose bodies were either never found or else were unable to be identified, thereby affording them the honour of having their names visible for visitors to read and contemplate.
We found hundreds of Australian gravestones, and stopped to read many of the names and ages that were chiselled into them. They were so young – far too young to have suffered this tragic fate. We found some gravestones with small stones piled on top – these were the graves of Jewish soldiers. We even found the graves of two Germans, maintained just as respectfully as those from Commonwealth countries.
Visiting Tyne Cot was a sobering, moving experience. Contemplating the huge losses of young men’s lives, it all seemed so futile. Why did so many die fighting for this small piece of land that was little more than a quiet patch of Belgian farmland at any other time in history? I can’t answer that. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to see this, particularly only three days after Anzac Day. It’s one of the topics I’ve been teaching my Year 9 students in history classes each year.
We had arrived at Tyne Cot in the rain, but just before we left, a break in the clouds let the sunshine through, and soon many of the gravestones were bathed in a beautiful white light as we departed.