FLANDERS WW1, FORGIVEN BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN! Part Two
Like prisoners worldwide, the British prisoners held in the tiny cells had carved graffiti on the walls.
Outside in the courtyard, there had been at least 69 executions, mainly for desertion.
Shock and depression weren’t recognised illnesses then.
One soldier was Herbert Morris, a black Jamaican. He was only 17 and shouldn’t have been in the army as he was underage. But he was shot.
7-8 marksmen were chosen as the firing squad. They were told that some of them had blanks, so they wouldn’t know who was the killer.
If the soldier hadn’t died, the Commander would walk over and shoot him through the temple.
Imagine shooting your friend because you were ordered to do it. Could you obey orders? I couldn’t.
I left the group and crossed the road to have a look round the market in the square. Much more up my street!
After this gruesome start to the day, we travelled to the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
We followed Bertin from the Visitor Centre to the Graveyard, walking beside a tall fence made of individual posts, all dated.
Constructed in 2012, the sun reflected the posts on to the ground, clearly showing slits in each post. Each slit represented a soldier who had died on that day; Belgians, British, French, Canadian, and many more.
Some posts had a few slits, and some were punctured with a whole line of them.
As I said in the title, the Belgians may have forgiven, but they will never forget! They are still adding to their Memorials.
The gravestones and crosses are neatly lined up in rows. A mower purred up and down, cutting the well-kept grass as we walked round.
Groups of well-behaved schoolchildren listened to their guides in horrified silence.
Officially, there’s only one woman buried in the graveyard; Nurse N Spindler.
She lied about her age so that she could nurse the wounded soldiers.
On a chilly autumn afternoon in 1929 a chauffeur-driven car pulled into the Lijssenthoek military cemetery in Flanders. Head groundsman Walter Sutherland initially paid little attention as a finely dressed woman stepped out. More than a decade after the Great War such pilgrimages by grief-stricken widows and mothers were common.
Sutherland glanced up ready to direct the visitor to one of the 11,000 identical stone graves. Once there she would, like most who had preceded her, weep and lay flowers. However there was something about the woman’s purposeful stride and dry-eyed demeanour that alerted the worker that this was no ordinary mourner.
Introducing herself as Harriette Raphael the woman outlined her extraordinary proposal. She explained that she was the mother of Lieutenant John Raphael who had been killed at the Battle of Messines Ridge in Belgium in June 1917 and buried at Lijssenthoek.
Now in poor health her one remaining wish was to be laid to rest alongside her beloved only son. Mrs Raphael knew very well that military rules of the period strictly forbade such requests, explaining her decision to go directly to the gardener rather than making an official approach to the Imperial War Graves Commission.
The widow of multi-millionaire financier Albert Raphael, who was part of a banking dynasty that in the 1920s rivalled the Rothschild family, she was no doubt used to getting her way.
A kindly man, Sutherland was also sympathetic to the plight ofa generation of mothers who had suffered the tragedy of outliving their sons. Originally from Inverness, he too had fought in the war before marrying a Flanders girl and settling in Belgium.
Mystery surrounds the exact nature of the pact she made with Walter but 13 months later a package arrived at the cemetery. It contained her ashes and the gardener knew precisely what he must do.
Without telling a soul he sought out the fallen soldier’s tombstone and beside it dug a small hole. Within a few minutes the ashes were buried and the turf replaced
Sutherland must have known he was taking a risk which could have cost him his job but within a few weeks the signs of the burial were gone. The secret has remained in the workman’s family for more than 80 years but now Sutherland’s son George has decided to make public the story of a grieving mother’s devotion.
George, 92, who was passed the secret by his father, says: “My father was moved by her determination. He showed me where he had cut out an area of grass and slipped the urn underneath. What he did was in defiance of the rules so he knew that he could not mark her name on the grave but he said a short prayer and always said he had ‘done right’.”
Later in life Harriette, who died aged 73, dabbled with Buddhism as she struggled to comprehend her son’s death. But always in the background was her burning desire to be buried next to Jack.
George Sutherland, who also tended the grounds at Lijssenthoek, says: “For years whenever I was planting or cutting grass near the grave I would always think about Mrs Raphael who, like all those other mothers, never recovered from losing a son in the Great War.
“I swear that my father’s actions allowed Harriette and her son to rest together in peace.”
The rules banning family burials in military cemeteries were finally relaxed in the 1960s.
It costs around 50 Euros pa per grave for their upkeep. And guess what? Our Government wants to make cutbacks, eg mowing the grass once a month instead of weekly.
Why do they need to make cutbacks? To finance more wars, of course.
Talbot House http://www.toerismepoperinge.be/en/page/3021/sleeping.html
Lijssenhoek Cemetery http://www.lijssenthoek.be/en
Poperinge – Heavy Traffic exhibition http://www.poperinge14-18.be/
Museum on the Yser “ Yzer Tower” http://www.aandeijzer.be/