One hundred years

11 November 2018

Originally my plans for the morning were to walk to the military cemetery at Netley with CJ. The weather forecast was not good though and, after getting soaked through yesterday, it didn’t seem worth the risk. Despite the distinct possibility of rain Commando was going out for a run with the fast boys. He suggested we get the train to Hamble and walk from there. Once he got back from his run he’d pick us up in the car. He might even get there before the silence at eleven o’clock. It sounded like a plan so, after a swift check of the relevant train times and prices, we set off for Bitterne Station.

The train arrived on time and we arrived, warm and dry at Hamble station at ten o’clock. At this stage the weather was dry, bright and cold. Ironically, it would have been perfect walking weather but you never can tell with these things.

We had an hour to walk the mile and a bit to the military cemetery and a choice of two routes. The rail trail would be more scenic but a little longer. The road route, down Hamble Lane to Lover’s Walk, more direct but less interesting. Usually I’d go for long and interesting over short and boring any day but I had a feeling the rail trail would be very muddy after all the rain so road route it was.

In fairness, as road walking goes, Hamble Lane is quite nice. It’s leafy and the road is quiet on a Sunday. The sun was still shining, even if it wasn’t providing any heat and walking kept us warm.

Lover’s Lane was a little further down the road than I remembered but we reached it soon enough. Now the pretty walking could begin. The lane runs between some playing fields and the fields beside the aircraft factory. It’s leafy, quiet and tarmacked so mud was not an issue. We strolled along slowly, enjoying the smell of decaying leaves and the light through the trees.

We met a couple of dog walkers and CJ stopped to pet the dogs. Pretty soon we’d reached the gate at the end of the lane and we were entering Victoria Country Park. Now we turned right onto the causeway that leads to the military cemetery. If anything, our walk got prettier. The colours of autumn were all around us and above us the sky was blue. The weather forecast seemed overly pessimistic.

We reached the cemetery gates just before twenty past ten. We were very early but, with only one train an hour there was little choice in the matter. Still, it gave us plenty of time to wander around the cemetery so neither of us was complaining.

Outside the gate we stopped to look at one of the war department boundary stones that are hidden everywhere in Hamble. There are lots of them and, some time ago I was sent a map of where they are. One day I might get around to searching for them all. CJ and I both like a boundary stone quest after all.

Today was not the day for thinking about boundary stones though. It was a time for reflection on the hundred years that have passed since the armistice and all the young men who lost their lives. Just inside the gate is a small hill topped by gravestones and trees. The stones cast long shadows with the low November sun behind them but we passed them by. Our aim was a little further on.

The deeper into the cemetery we went the more vibrant the autumn colours seemed to get. A carpet of golden leaves surrounded the graves and the blue sky above added contrast. These graves are some of the oldest but they weren’t the ones we’d come to see today and we slowly walked on by.

A splash of red amongst the gold and blue was a sign we’d almost arrived at our destination. A flaming maple stands close to the tall war memorial amid the World War I graves like an eternal flame of remembrance.

Despite the vivid colours, this is a somber place. The rows of white gravestones are a reminder of the sacrifices made a hundred years ago. The sleeping soldiers lie in peace beneath the ground. That peace was hard won and the price was their lives.

Beneath each stone someone had placed a rose, some were white, others red. Who put them there and whether there was any meaning to the colours is a mystery but it made me smile to know these men were remembered.

There was a lantern and flowers on the memorial too. CJ went to look at them and, while he stood in quiet contemplation, I looked around. We were the only living people. Every year I’ve come here a small group have gathered to honour the silence but it looked as if it would be just us two today. Then I spotted another man, quietly walking along the rows of graves. It was still early, just before half past ten, perhaps others would come?

In silence we slowly walked along the rows of white stones, pausing every now and then to read an inscription. Many simply had names, dates and regiments, others had more detail. Private G M Pirrie, a Canadian, had a maple leaf to go with all those scattered in the ground. He was just twenty-one in 1915, when he died.

Then there was Frank Leedham of the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He died of wounds incurred in France at the Military Hospital aged just nineteen.

As we walked I became aware of my phone buzzing. It was Commando. For a brief moment I thought he was calling to tell me he was in the Country Park and would be joining us soon. He wasn’t though. He was actually sitting in the decking at home, having realised he’d gone out for his run without taking any door keys. He was wearing just shorts and a vest and was cold and cross with himself. There was little I could do apart from promise to get back as quickly as I could after the silence.

While I’d been talking to Commando I’d also been walking along the lines of graves. When the call ended I found myself in front of the grave of Eugene Nirke, the only Jewish grave in the cemetery as far as I can tell. Unlike all the other graves, this one is topped with dozens of pebbles, placed as a mark of respect by those who have visited.

Eugene did not die in World War I like the soldiers all around him. In fact he was born at the beginning of the war and died in February 1950 aged thirty five, making his grave quite incongruous here amongst the Great War dead. It isn’t certain where Eugene was born but he enlisted in the Gloucestershire regiment in Burma in 1941 where he fought against the Japanese invasion. His father was living in Shanghai at the time but it’s doubful Eugene was born there.  After a period of illness, or possibly an injury, he was transferred to the intelegence corps in India in 1944. Over the next few years his intelegence corps work took him to many places, including Ceylon, Bombay, and possibly even Russia. There is some suggestion he might have been a spy. In October 1947 he became a British citizen. 

Throughout this time though, his health was poor and he was listed as unfit for service on several occasions. This was probably a manifestation of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him at the  Douglas House Sanatorium in Southbourne, Hampshire on 22 February 1950.

Another slightly incongruous grave is that of private Horace N Jones. Unlike the other plain white stones, his has a prettily curved top. Horace was an Australian soldier who died of his wounds at Netley in 1915. His sisters erected this small stone for him.

Scattered here and there amongst the allied graves are the graves of German soldiers, prisoners of war who died at Netley. In life, they may have been the enemy but all are equal here in this quiet place of peace. The only difference between them now is the pointed tops of the German stones and the curved tops of the allies,

Slowly, while we’d been walking up and down the rows, other people had arrived. Amongst them I recognised a familiar face, the piper who’d played amazing grace the first time I’d come to remember here. He spotted me too and greeted me like an old friend. I was pleased to see he had his bagpipes with him. He told me he didn’t have the breath to play much any more but he would try today. He’d also prepared a list of the numbers of those fallen in all the battles since the hospital was built here. He asked if I would like to read it out before the silence but I declined. Honoured as I was, I knew there was no way I could do it without crying. In the end his wife did it. I still cried.

The few of us who’d gathered here to remember kept the silence impeccably, although we could hear a football match going on on the playing fields behind the trees. It seemed a shame they couldn’t stop for just a minute but I suppose a hundred years seems too long ago to think about for some people. Without those brave men though, the world today would be a very different place.

The silence ended with the wailing of the pipes. A fittingly mournful sound for this sad occasion. Then I wiped the tears from my eyes and CJ and I headed back towards Hamble and home.

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