On Saturday 1 November my sisters and I took my 82 year old Dad on the trip he had been waiting take for many many years. It seemed so fitting on this centenary anniversary of the start of WWI that we finally managed to track down and visit the final resting place of my Great Uncle Alfred Payne, 2151 Private AA Payne of the 7th(City of London) Battalion, a volunteer unit of the British Army founded in 1860.
He sleeps alongside his brothers in arms in a small, neat, peaceful cemetery near Festubert in the Calais region of France, near a lovely little town called Bethune.
It appears that Alfred would have arrived at Le Havre in March 1915 before heading to the line at Bethune to be instructed in trench warfare. His battalion were the first in his division to go into action in early May, which was where my Great Uncle fell on 10 May 1915.
It took us a while as a family to track down his grave as many of the men who died in WW1 were buried in small cemeteries close to battle. This was the case with Alfred. First we had to try and find his service record, which seemed an impossible task, until my Dad found a photo of his Gran’s headstone which mentioned Alfred and his regiment. Then we started to research the war records and finally found him in the Post Office Rifles cemetery.
It was a lovely sunny morning when we set off to Folkestone to board the Channel Tunnel to take us to Calais. First time I’d ever used this service and I was so impressed! Granted it was very early on a Saturday morning, so not exactly peak time, but still, so quick and easy! We had a picnic en route – you can’t beat cheese rolls and coffee when you are up early and travelling.
Once in Calais we found the A26 and headed to Festubert. As we drove through rural countryside, passing the odd farm or small village, we began to think about what it would have been like 100 years ago. It is so flat in this region and the troops must have been so exposed. As you drive around this region you pass small quiet, unobtrusive war graves. They are all beside the road, with no great fanfare of signage, just neatly tended with row upon row of white headstones, usually surrounded by empty fields and filled with wild flowers and the odd butterfly.
The Post Office Rifles cemetery is just such a place. We nearly drove past it in fact. It was a beautiful sunny day and very peaceful. We found my Great Uncle’s headstone and placed our poppy wreaths at its base. Then my 82 year old Dad began to quietly recite the Ode of Remembrance (For the Fallen) and my mascara took a battering:
“They shall not grow old, as we are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, not the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
It was an emotional and very special day. For my Dad to finally honour his brave Uncle and visit his grave on behalf of his family was a huge moment for him and us.
As you walk along the rows and rows of silent headstones you realise that most of the ages inscribed thereon are 18,19, the odd 24 year old perhaps, but in the main, they were young boys who had probably never ventured far from their town, city of village. What was most heartbreaking though for me were the many that simply stated ‘Known only unto God’.
After the sad and emotional visit we decided to toast the memory of my Great Uncle in the style he would have appreciated – with something alcoholic! We found Bethune – a gorgeous small French town – and sat in the glorious sunshine dining al fresco at Zinc cafe on a cobbled square beneath a huge clock tower. It seemed pretty much unchanged since the time Alfred would have marched through. We even managed a visit to the local Carrefour to stock up on booze for our big family Christmas celebrations.
It was a long and very emotional day, yet so worth it.
If you are heading over to France sometime soon and pass a cemetery please stop for a moment to remember the fallen.