Tuesday 12 November 2019


In the summer, when I visited Malta, Mother Hand ask me if I would visit the grave of her uncle. He died during WW2 in Malta and was buried in a war cemetery there. She had an old black and white snapshot of the grave with the details pencilled carefully onto the back. She thought it might be very hard to find; I naturally hopped on to the Commonwealth War Graves website (which is superb) and had found him in a trice.

Getting to the cemetery proved a little more difficult. We left it until our last day and left the hotel a bit later than intended; two buses didn't turn up; the one we eventually got didn't stop in spite of my pressing the button (Zoe said this was my fault as we hadn't stood up and in London they don't stop unless you also stand up - something I dispute and which I did not hear placidly at the time) and the next stop was so much further along a dual carriageway that we had to wait for a bus back. We hoofed it down the deserted road, shadeless and loud with cicadas, at some point after 1pm. I was thinking, if I'd been raised somewhere around Twickenham, I'm not sure I would want to have been laid to rest here for all eternity.

Alas. The cemetery had closed at 1pm. I didn't know what to do. I briefly attempted to guess the combination padlock but gave up quite quickly. Faced with having to leave and never visit the grave, I plucked up the considerable courage it took to ring the number on the plaque (I don't like ringing people I don't know - a big handicap in teaching), hoping the site manager did not live too far away and might be able to come back; luckily, this had obviously happened before and the very friendly man gave me the combination and stayed on the phone while I put it in, to check I was in OK.

It took us a short while to find it, mainly because it wasn't marked with a cross as it had been in the picture, but we did find it in the end.

I mainly felt desperately sad, for several reasons. Firstly, he was sharing a grave with three others, which wasn't clear from the original grave marker and therefore felt a bit hood-winky. Secondly, he was only 26 when he died; he was a qualified chartered accountant, the youngest person ever to qualify at the time (according to Mother Hand) and he had been married to a lady called Joan but apparently had no children. How desperately sad that he died so young and never got to see out a promising career and a marriage just beginning. Finally, I was sad to think that I might have been the only person from his family to ever have visited his grave. He died before my grandparents met; nobody I've ever known would have ever met him or spoken to him in person. He died in the middle of the war. It's fairly safe to say neither his parents nor Joan ever made it to Malta, as it would have been costly and difficult, even after 1945. Imagine waiting 77 years for somebody to visit your grave, and even then it is someone who never met anybody in your family. And all that time, you're buried in the scorching sun, surrounded by scratching cicadas, hundreds of miles from everything you ever knew.

Of course, I am making some big assumptions here; he might have loved Malta and hated England. Joan might have moved there after the war and held vigils by his grave every night, or at the very least visited whilst on holiday. Being that he is dead, also, he probably has no strong feelings on the matter.

I have complicated feelings around Remembrance. I'm not ungrateful and I recognise that it is a mark of respect, but I am uncomfortable with the notion of a large standing military and less comfortable with glorifying millions of war dead while very little is done for our physically and mentally scarred, still-living ex-servicepersons. I don't like the Battlefields trips or looking for familiar names on the huge grave sites in Belgium. However, Tommy B brought me to a better understanding of what Remembrance is all about and why it is important. I might make a point of visiting a few more CWGC sites when I'm on holiday in future, in the memory of other war dead whose families were never able to visit them.

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