This photo is perhaps of a smaller scale than some about which I’ll be blogging here. In one sense, that is, anyway. It is of the little Commonwealth War Graves Commission site called Queen’s Cemetery. It is in France, and stands on the Allied forces front line positions as they stood on 1 July 1916, the day of the start of what we now call The Battle of the Somme.
Some years ago, as an early adopter of the internet, I was asked to teach colleagues at work ways they could use it. One of them said “Will I find anything if I put my own name into the search engine?” I said I didn’t know, but it might be revealing to try. To set an example, I put mine into what was probably quite an early version of Google. One of the things it returned was a reference to someone with the same name as mine, who was recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves web site of the graves and cemeteries under their care.
When I returned home that day, I followed up on this, to see who this was and where he was buried. I widened my search of the CWGC database to include those with the same first name initials, and not necessarily the identical first name. I was both shocked and intrigued to find the search returned 54 names, all of soldiers from the First World War, all buried in graves or commemorated on memorials, in Franco/Belgian Flanders and on the Somme.
I’d been making occasional visits to these parts of France and Belgium for some time. They were within reach of a day trip across the Channel via the Tunnel, and for a motorbike, the day return fare was (and still is) very good value. However, the discovery of these 54 burials gave shape and focus to my visits. I decided I would search out each one and photograph them all.
The project took three years-worth of visits, and was a fabulous way to get to know this part of the world. I visited at all times of year and in all weathers, and became quite over-awed by the sheer scale of the carnage that was the First World War. We’re talking 85 years and more after the end of the fighting here, yet the scars were and remain often still visible to those who know where to look. However in many places, you’d never have any idea, based on what there was to see nowadays.
I followed up the CWGC database surnames in relation to what I know of my own family history. To my knowledge none of those graves recorded a relative. I don’t think that made the discovery or the visits any the less poignant. Mine is not an uncommon name, but to find as many as 54 namesakes or very near namesakes from a simple database search really brought it home to me that the numbers involved in that war were simply huge.
And to see your own name on a grave-stone is a very salutary experience, believe me. Finding two namesakes buried in the same small Somme cemetery was also a coincidence I’d not prepared for.
In a little over a year from when I’m writing this, we’ll see the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. Less than two years after that, on 1 July 2016, it will be the 100th anniversary of the infamous “First Day of The Somme”.
There will be much additional then interest in places like Queen’s Cemetery.