A number of years ago, I was teaching work colleagues stuff about internet search techniques. A good game is to put your own name in and see what comes up. I had done this before, and had been amused to have a crazy Texan judge, a well-known modern artist, a WW2 Admiral and the originator of the Bushmills Distillery (!) as namesakes. But I had never noticed the entry for the Commonwealth WarGraves Commission which listed where to find the gravestone of a soldier with my name, killed in France in 1916. I still can’t remember what led me to go back to the CWGC site later that day and enter my name, plus some simple variations on it (Thomas, rather than Tom, for example). However, I can vividly recall the impact on me from finding that, all told, the list came to something like 54 entries. Let’s be precise: that’s 54 graves, just in northern France or Belgian Flanders, all from between 1914 and 1918.
Suddenly the sheer scale of the First World War hit me hard. Mine wasn’t a name like Smith, Jones, or Brown. Mine’s a common enough surname, particularly in parts of Northern Ireland, where my late father’s family are from, but by coupling it with my first names, I expected to find maybe two or three entries. Not 54.
I have three first names (a family tradition) and there were even CWGC entries for soldiers with the same initials. I was also pretty sure that none of the entries related to direct relatives. My admittedly pretty thin understanding of my family history is that they were involved in what came to be known as “reserved employment”.
I’d travelled around France and Belgium a lot. I’d admired how beautifully situated and perfectly tended the CWGC cemeteries were, and read lots about the War, including the excellent Lyn MacDonald books. I’d never made a connection with it all at a personal level, though. Reader, that may be your position too. Try the search engine thing. You never know where it might take you.
Now, of course, I couldn’t just let it go at that. It was midwinter, but I began plotting a series of visits in the spring and summer to visit, photograph and pay my respects to each of my namesakes’ graves or memorials. It’s something I’ve completed now, and I’ve visited several more than once. This little project probably reached it’s emotional climax at the little Asservilliers cemetery on the Somme. Nowadays this small graveyard sits right next to the A26 motorway and the TGV line, but it is home in perpetuity for two dead soldiers named T.Phillips. Astonishingly, it is the last repose of an uncle of someone I know, too.
I can never forget the emotion of seeing my own name on a gravestone. My first was at Busigny, deep in rural Picardy. I’d expected it would feel a bit like the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come showing Scrooge his own headstone, but it was far more visceral than that. This was later compounded when I realised that I was visiting the graves only of the namesakes who had died. There would have been others who survived, intact or wounded, physically or mentally scarred, and all forever changed by their experiences. And suddenly I understood how huge this thing called mechanised war really is, how it destroys families, villages, regiments and so on.
Maybe we’re not learning the lessons, but thank you, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for helping remind us.