war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper




About the Project

"A 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 dead.  

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 Etaples cemetery, by Simon John Chamberscasualty 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.” 

Frederick 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.   

Filled with flowers, the headstones warm under the sun, Ētaples is very different Sapignies German cemetery, by Simon John Chambersfrom 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 dimly. 

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.  

The Thiepval memorial, by Simon John ChambersBut 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 Dover. 

This article first appeared in the Dover Mercury for 18th October 2006

Copyright 2006 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved