I’m standing on a bleak hill, in the middle of rolling farmland as far as the eye can see, the odd hamlet visible in the distance. In a tiny cemetery, among 237 World War I dead I find the tombstone of my great uncle William James Lagden, killed at just 20 years old in the battle of Arras, April 1917. I’m not sure I even have the right to be here, our relationship feels so tenuous. We are generations apart, and I stand here almost 100 years later trying to imagine who he was, who was this boy who died such a futile death before life had even begun on this bleak field all those years ago.
My grandfather was just 10 when his older brother died here. Were they close? Did he miss him? Did this loss leave a scar? It must have done, as their mother must have been stricken with grief. I stand here drawing to mind all those pictures I’ve seen of no-man’s land – a sea of mud and barbed wire and death. It’s hard to lay this scene over this country, although bleak it’s tranquil, the only disruption the low hum of the motorway from Calais to Paris in the distance.
We lay a mala on the grave and some flowers and I say a silent prayer to this poor boy, who died here all alone in the middle of the snow that fell that April. The soldiers were happy when it started to warm up but even the frost and cold were preferable to the mires of muddy clay that came after, sucking at their boots, pinning them in place as fodder for the enemy machine guns. Was he aware when he died? Was it instantaneous? A mine, a shell, machine gun fire. Or slow? Gas, a stomach wound, hand to hand combat with the retreating German lines.
We visit the tunnels under Arras where the troops massed before the offensive, 24,000 crammed into the maze of tunnels underneath the besieged town. I imagine William here, playing cards, passing the time, telling jokes before emerging through to the surface and into hell. With the benefit of hindsight the story told is scathing of the French army and the British generals who went along with the plan formed at Chantilly. The German retreat should have laid waste to their plans but they continued on as normal. Thousands died as a result.
I’m putting myself in William’s place now – a kid from Kingston, maybe he's never even been with a girl, finds himself in Northern France in one of the bloodiest wars in human history. He’d almost certainly never left England before. We see photos of Arras devastated – he must have seen this before he went into battle. We see footage of officers riding to the front and the lowly privates and sergeants walking along behind.
Poor kid. All the boys joined up – the ‘done’ thing, trying to be a hero, but he met his death here on this hill to take a few metres of earth that would be lost again the following year. In the end we won – but the treaty made led ultimately to WWII and even more destruction.
I’m humbled by my great uncles sacrifice – did he comprehend the risk when he went or did it dawn once it was too late? Was he the life and soul of his regiment or a quiet shy boy in the corner? Either way I sent my thoughts down to what remained of his brief life there in the earth beneath my feet and to his soul now free with deep humility at his courage and sacrifice. The world has changed so much, but war is war and it’s always the ordinary man who suffers for the despotism and egoism of others.