About the Project
CORNER OF A FOREIGN FIELD" by Marilyn Stephenson-Knight
New cities have grown where once the
Western Front ran. Instead of craters there are lakes, instead
of winding trenches of knee-deep mud, fields of ripening
sweetcorn. But no children play, no hawkers shout, no cars rush
along the roadways. The cities are silent, save for the
whispering of the wind in the trees. They are peopled by the
Ētaples is the
largest commonwealth war cemetery in France. The first glimpse
through the woods is staggering. The headstones blur into the
distance; buried here are 11,500 people. Lying behind the lines
in the Great War, this was a
centre. Surrounded by sixteen hospitals and a convalescent
station, Ētaples was known to the troops as “Eat Apples”. It
sounds like a prescription.
Thomas Wall was just 19 when he died of
wounds here in October 1916. He lies a few rows from fellow
Dovorian, Albert Marsh, who was fatally wounded a year before.
Across the cemetery are two more named on the Town Memorial.
Harold Cave succumbed to pneumonia in April 1918, while George
Smith, lost six days earlier, rests beneath a headstone
inscribed by his family, “He Died For Us.”
Baker lies at Ētaples too. He is not a Dovorian, and we knew
nothing of him until two months ago. Simon Chambers, my
colleague, discovered a memorial scroll and an old Bible. We
traced the family tree. Having researched many others for the
War Memorial Project, Simon suddenly learnt that his family too
had been bereaved by the Great War. Freddie was Simon’s great
uncle. He was 24 when he died from wounds in 1915.
flowers, the headstones warm under the sun, Ētaples is very
the German cemetery, a few miles away at Sapignies. Here stark
rows of black iron crosses march across deeply-shaded grass.
1,550 are here, four men to a cross. Back and front each arm
bears a name, eerily similar to those they fought: Erich,
Johann, Heinrich, Paul; Peter, Wilhelm, Michael, Ernst. They too
died for their country. But for them are no flowers, nor a
visitors’ book – merely a tiny lantern that at eventide glows
Swallowed by the mud, pounded into no man’s
land, many men have no known grave at all. The giant Thiepval
memorial, on a plain in the Somme now silent, commemorates over
72,000 such. The numbers are too big, the names are too many. It
is impossible to imagine that each of these was once a man, and
that, within five months in 1916, nearly all of them were gone
with no trace - save a few marks on white stone.
here and there beneath a name a wooden cross is laid, or a poppy
stuck to the wall. The death of one is easier to comprehend than
many. Harry Barton, Dover tram driver, killed by a direct hit
and lost in a shell hole, is here. William Blythe, awarded for
bravery, is here too. He was reported wounded and missing, and
despite appeals by his wife Susan was never found. Cecil Jackson
was a Dover sea scout, and a blacksmith. He had served in France
for eight months when he went missing. He was 16.
In France and Belgium there are nearly a
thousand Commonwealth war cemeteries and memorials. From a
single hilltop four or five can be seen at a time. The hundreds
of thousands who visit their kin bring their language with them.
The passer by speaks not French or Flemish, but native English.
This is no mere corner of a foreign field,
but great swathes of countryside; a country even, within a
country. Just like England, there is a corner that is forever
This article first appeared in the Dover Mercury for 18th