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A Shout From The Attic: Church Building Mission - 5

...I stood transfixed; my mind floating over the sea of graves as if to miss one would diminish the sacrifice each of the dead
had made. In death, their voices are more powerful than they were in life, particularly to those who, pausing from their own
concerns, listen to the silent chorus of the dwellers in their graves, and feel the death of the dead...

Ronnie Bray visited a United States war cemetery in Cambridgeshire.

Death’s Dark Vale

Even from the roadway, it all seemed so wrong. We tumbled off the bus, not all of us yet sombred by the place the coach
driver announced as the United States War Cemetery in Cambridgeshire, England, where the mortal remains of thousands of young American servicemen killed in action in the European theatre were laid to rest. I am ashamed to say that one of our number displayed a profoundly offensive lack of sensitivity, grace, dignity, and humanity in a remark that I shall never repeat, but always remember.

My childhood was, in large part, fashioned by the Second World War. I was almost five when it began and ten when it ended. The War determined the content of comic books, conversation, excuses for shortage, explanations for hardship, and our child’s play. It also took away the fathers, uncles and elder brothers of my school friends, and from these I learned that a soldier’s death was cause for serious thoughts and silence, and that dying far from home without hope of return to be interred in familiar surroundings, and less than slight expectation for a visit to the graveside by those who loved them was a deepening of a tragedy that was already too deep for tears.

Numbers are meaningless to me, so the statistics of war, although they sounded grand, never helped me grasp the cost in human life that demanded by insatiable Mars. I little thought as I walked through the gateway what impact the sight I was about to see would have on me.

The sun was shining; rain was part of another, distant, world, as the sky, bright with blue and not a cloud, hummed with
summer heat. Row on row of white crosses and intermittent Stars of David began at our feet, as the foam-filled surf laps the sand, and stretched away beyond the horizon in all directions. Even so many years after, the extent of the white grave markers is overwhelming. Row on row, column on column they stretched to the visible distance and drop down
beyond the limit of my vision, rolling over gentle slopes and ridges in the most tranquil setting that is, perhaps, the only
place where a soldier knows true peace.

There is a urgent activity in preparation for war that yields but unsettled rest. Fear and danger mixed with excitement and
the threat of death inhabits the battlefield, scoring the mind. Even after the conflict, when the sudden shock of imminent
maiming and death gives way to memoried dreams, the dangers of combat are nightly relived, giving stark lie to the notion that absence of war is peace. Yet here in this greensward field there is a silence screaming from the belly of the earth to beseech us listen to the voices rising in silent chorus, pleading to the groundwalkers, in whose hands alone rests the future with the choice of peace or war, to be their messengers.

I stood transfixed; my mind floating over the sea of graves as if to miss one would diminish the sacrifice each of the dead
had made. In death, their voices are more powerful than they were in life, particularly to those who, pausing from their own
concerns, listen to the silent chorus of the dwellers in their graves, and feel the death of the dead. I was moved, humbled, and chastened.

I have served as a soldier and know something of conflict. I also know how quickly we forget the troubled times when we are free from threat, and just as quickly forget the fallen and the violated, the broken and the deranged, the disillusioned and the deceived. In that place, I was reminded as I saw rows and rows of young men risen to stand by their earth beds as if to declare their number. I see them still, waiting to be called to speak and tell the world that freedom is not free, but their
hour is not yet.

Encouraged by the belief that all shall rise from death's dark and forgotten places to light and immortality where their
sufferings will be made known, and our pained memories will fade to nothing, I mouth my “Thank you,” to my benefactors from over the waters, as my eyes moisten, and I understand that without the light to come there could never be release from the anguish of war and its flagitious gifts.

I am jolted back to myself by a call that our coach will leave in ten minutes. One last look to survey the scene and burn it
into memory. Forty years and, although the impression is less crisp at the edges, it still is clear, the feeling
undiminished. I pray that I will always remember the dead and wounded who made it possible for me to have a celebratory bonfire in my tenth year.

When the War was finished, my home town of Huddersfield was awash with the hospital blue uniforms of the wounded servicemen from the British Isles and from the far reaches of the Empire. The boys in blue mingled without rancour or evident hostility with the boys in prison grey, Italian and German prisoners who had been set to work in fields and farms in our locality.

In the bustling thoroughfares, their uniforms contrasted with the drab clothing of local folk who wore black armbands or patches sewn on their coat sleeves, telling without speaking that a loved one’s bones rested far from home. It was a time of rejoicing; it was a time of great sorrow. We rejoiced because the war was done, rather than that our side was victorious, and sometimes in our boyish frolics thought only of ourselves, and forgot the price that had been and was still being paid so that we could safely rest and sport and play as if the War had never been.

In spite of my childish insouciance, I will never forget to be grateful for an end to blackouts, rationing, shortage, fear,
the blast that tears apart flesh and bone with ear-splitting insanity, the whisper of the tumbling bullet that cripples when
it does not kill, hatred and suspicion, prejudice and loathing, the madness of wasted lives, the cold horror of empty men who came home to nothing, to be marginalised, immured, and prescribed the humiliation that a forgetful people proffered.

To all the dead in all the wars in all the world, to all the maimed and crippled who saw their comrades fall, to all those
who were unscathed, but stood in the place of danger, to those who laboured to support and sustain them, and to all whose husbands, fathers, uncles, sons, brothers, nephews, and friends did not come home, or came home broken, to all those who gave their all and to those who did their best, to those who were called upon to do much, and to those who were called upon to do little, I bow my head and say.

"Thank you. God bless you."


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