How I Came To Be Me
It was lately suggested that maybe I could write something about myself and my motivations for writing this page. The short answer is that I do this for the same reason you all pin a red poppy to your coat in November or try not to well up at the sound of the Last Post.
And honestly, all these soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, Mums and Dads, wives and sisters, children, dogs and horses, all are infinitely more interesting than me, I promise you, but here goes.
I could write about being born into a kind, gentle, non-military family thirty years after the end of WW2, of how my Dad’s family came from the ancient, darkest East End of London and were twice bombed-out during the Blitz, which made me wonder (when I got old enough to wonder) why there are no family heirlooms, no photos of my grandparents’ wedding day in June 1940, no this-is-the-house-I-grew-up-in.
I could mention Charles Darwin having a good point with the whole Natural Selection thing and how, all things being equal, I shouldn’t have made it much past the age of seven, which has perhaps given me an enduring sort of affinity with the Dead, who (I think in my more fanciful moments) have ever since fondly kept a me-shaped space with them carefully dusted in case I suddenly need it. Graveyards and cemeteries have always felt like home to me.
I could write about growing up (somewhat against the odds) in a leafy south-east London suburb with a fierce pride in my beautiful, scarred city, about an English Literature Bachelor of Arts degree at university which qualified me for everything and nothing and how people said: ‘oh so you want to be a teacher’ but how they wouldn’t have said that if they could have seen my staggering lack of natural authority in trying to marshal so much as a pet hamster.
I could tell you about drinking in the White Hart at Brasted, where the Battle of Britain pilots stationed at nearby Biggin Hill used to drink, and adopting some local pilots’ graves, becoming curious about the 20 year old New Zealander who had come all this way to defend England and had already won an MBE by the time he was killed in action in September 1940. This made me start to work out for myself how to find out about the War Dead, how to find them in the archives, how to trace their families, how to put their kit back together for them.
I could even speak of how for years now, we have spent every holiday or long-weekend looking for lost War Dead in English churchyards and making sure we get to the least-visited and most remote #CWGC battlefield cemeteries along the Western Front, breaking our hearts over every epitaph.
So that’s sort of me. As to why I write this page… well, let’s see.
The Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour. is basically given for something so selflessly, gigantically kind, you can’t reasonably be expected to survive it.
So the VC is a big deal and that sort of courage is deemed so rare that only three men have ever been awarded this medal twice; all three men were distantly related and they were all medics.
One of them is Noel Chavasse, who died in 1917 at a Casualty Clearing Station as a result of multiple wounds received in action, trying to help others and insisting on everyone else being seen to first.
He was buried just outside Ypres, at the #CWGC’s Brandhoek New Military Cemetery.
His grave is a fixture on the battlefield tourism trail.
Brandhoek New is a rectangular cemetery which stands beside a main road and you could find Chavasse’s grave, even if you didn’t have the plot number or a cemetery plan to hand because the grass from the little cemetery gate is perpetually muddied and trampled, leading directly to his headstone. It’s the only stone people seem to stop at Brandhoek to see (and I do understand that – he is undoubtedly a superhero) and then they’re off to the next site.
But here’s the thing.
There are 557 other men buried there with Chavasse. There are the same beautiful white Portland headstones on either side of the good doctor in that row, and no one looks at them.
Taking nothing away from Noel Chavasse, his gigantic heart and immeasurable courage, what about those other 557 men buried alongside him who may have been just as good, just as brave, but whose courage no one who survived actually saw to tell anyone about.
They gave no less than Noel Chavasse; they left behind everything and everyone who mattered to them, in defence of what is right, and they paid the same price as he.
But no one visits them.
And I’m pretty sure Noel Chavasse himself would share the sentiment, bless him.
That’s why I write this page and why it means a great deal to me every single time anyone reads a post and reacts to it, because for me, it’s one more Good Heart who hasn’t forgotten theirs.