Thursday, October 9, 2014

Empires of the Dead

Highland Cemetery, Le Cateau, France
I just finished reading Empires of the Dead by David Crane. I can't get over how much I enjoyed his book on the history of Britain's WWI cemeteries and the man whose vision they represent.

I'm sure I wouldn't have enjoyed the book half as much if I hadn't been to so many WWI cemeteries. In fact, I'd love to read a book that deals with the American cemeteries and the decisions that led to the look and character we take for granted today.

Today we assume that the cemeteries look the way they do because it was always going to be this way. Crane's book makes plain that this isn't true, that the cemeteries are primarily the result of one man's vision, which was shaped by his views on the British Empire and equality (all headstones are uniform - for unknown privates up to well known generals).

At the time many families wanted their loved ones returned to Britain (or Ireland or any of the other nations in the Empire), but that was at odds with Fabian Ware's vision. He had support too, from Kipling who spoke for all those whose sons' bodies were never identified, who had nothing to return home for burial.

If you've traveled to Ypres or to the Somme you'll know what those cemeteries look like: every grave uniformly shaped and sized, and only some sparse personal details and a regimental insignia to make each stone different. Each cemetery has a large "stone of sacrifice" that looks like an altar and a 'cross of sacrifice.'

I always assumed the cross was an automatic, but it was actually the source of some upset at the time or, rather, its absence was a source of upset. The original plans didn't allow for a cross and this bothered many of the families of the dead and so the 'cross of sacrifice' was added. Originally the cemeteries were only going to have the secular stone of sacrifice, but that didn't set well with many in Britain, especially the families of the dead. Lutyen's stone was insufficient for most and his rival's cross was added, much to his horror.

The cross in the cemetery at Etreux
What I'd love to know now, having read Crane's book, is why the cemetery at Etreux is so different. Etreux is where in the early days of the war the Royal Munster Fusiliers made their heroic stand in the face of overwhelming German numbers.

The story of what the 2nd Battalion of the RMF did there is tremendous, but I'm now very curious about the cemetery at Etreux. I want to know why this cemetery is so different, so out of sync with Ware's vision. There are a number of private memorials and the cross is not the standard 'cross of sacrifice,' but a Celtic cross design.

I've been in many CWGC cemeteries and the one at Etreux is one that definitely stands out.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Too old for many things, but not too old to run for a bottle of wine

My leg is almost healed. The large bruise just above my knee is now fading away, which is good.

I just wish I could say that I hurt it diving to field a ground ball or even that I fell off my bike trying to make that sharp bend in the trail in the woods at too high a speed in a desperate effort to win that all-important 6,215th race against my brothers. But no, unfortunately, those days are way in the past.

No, I hurt my knee when I banged it off a door that was caught on a loose rug. It was caught and wouldn't budge, but I didn't know that when I galloped down the stairs at top speed in order to retrieve that much needed ... bottle of wine.

I didn't have time for doors, especially doors that were partly open but not open enough to squeeze through. I descended 7 stairs in two steps and flicked the door with my outstretched left hand and presumed it would be wide open by the time the rest of me arrived. Alas, it was not.

My left knee took the brunt of the blow as I walloped it off the side of the door. I was hurt. And stunned. It took me a few seconds to realize that I'd have to hop the rest of the way to the wine, which is what I did as guttural, Yosemite Sam-like noises poured forth from deep within me. It was only when I got to the wine that I fully grasped the truth of my situation – that I had a bottle of wine, but the opener was back upstairs AND I was in a lot of pain.

For a few brief seconds I wondered if I was too old 'for this.' You see, I just had one of those 'milestone' birthdays (I'm not saying which, but I was born the same year as Shea Stadium opened), which possibly sowed that seed of doubt. Happily, that moment passed.

Yes I am too old to play baseball. Yes I'm too old to race my brothers on my bicycle. (Although I daresay that if someone put the four of us on bikes and said, “Who can get to the far end of the trail first?” we would still all kill ourselves AND each other in a bid to be first.)

But I am not too old to give my all in pursuit of a bottle of wine. I figure that when that day does come my time on this Earth will be nearing an end. I hope I am never too old to chase wine.

There was no real damage to my leg other than the bruise, which is now just about gone. Within a few minutes of that initial bang I was able to hobble upstairs with my wine. The first glass was strictly medicinal, I told myself, as I poured out the second. The pain was definitely easing by then.

By the next day it was just a little sore and now, six days later, it's but a yellowish spot on my knee and a fading memory.

It did leave one lasting mark, however. I learned a very valuable lesson – always have a bottle opener on you. You never know what calamity might befall you and prevent you from getting to the opener when you most desperately need it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The #ABMC should provide free WiFi at America's #WWI cemeteries

Here's what might sound like a wacky idea, but the American Battle Monuments Commission should provide free WiFi at the American WWI cemeteries. Why does anyone need WiFi you ask?

Well, as you wander among the graves some will catch your eye. Maybe it's the name – same as a family member or a friend – or maybe it's the state he's from or maybe it's the fact he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross or the Croix de Guerre (as many Americans were) and you want to do a quick Google search.

Why shouldn't visitors to the cemetery be able to do that? I think they should be encouraged to do so because otherwise the sea of white crosses is just that – a sea of white crosses. And believe me, when you're at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery the 14,000 white crosses and occasional Star of David are overwhelming. Each cross represents an individual, a person with their own story and those individual stories are what people connect with, not really the broad sweep of a battle.

Providing WiFi will afford American visitors (& others) the opportunity to learn a little more about one (or more) of those who is (are) buried there. That will help personalize the cemeteries, lessen the "sea of white crosses" effect. And, just in case someone thinks adding WiFi to the cemeteries would be disrespectful I ask you to remember:
  1. Providing free WiFi should be near enough to cost-free and unobtrusive. The infrastructure should be all but invisible.
  2. The dead won't mind. In fact, if it helps people to learn about them as people I think that if they could speak they'd be pleased.
  3. Anyone with access to a 4G connection can access Google at the cemeteries already, but that probably includes no Americans or if it does it includes only those for whom cost of downloading data while overseas is no issue.
So, it may be an odd suggestion, but free WiFi will enable Americans (and others) to learn more and, thus, to honor more fully those who are buried in America's war cemeteries.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Who was Eleanor Bradley-Peters?

Last week I was touring around the area known as the Saint Mihiel Salient during WWI and I came to the town of Thiaucaourt, France. For reasons I can't recall now I walked into the local cemetery in which was buried one, lone British soldier - T J Kite of the Grenadier Guards who died after the Armistice on December 8, 1918.

As I turned to leave the little graveyard I saw a cross that was shaped just like the crosses that mark the graves of fallen American servicemen in Europe. The cross read simply "Eleanor Bradley-Peters / July 6, 1865 - November 1, 1941." When I got home I Googled her name, expecting to find she was an English or American poet who had opted to live in France.

First I found a reference to an Eleanor Bradley-Peters born July 1, 1855 and died November 1, 1941. Again, I didn't know anything about her, but I thought to myself, "Good for you - moving to France and lopping 10 years off your age. Sure you died under Nazi occupation, but you were 86 (or 76) by then. I hope you gave em hell."

Unfortunately, I dug a little more and the story turned. Her only son - Edward McClure Peters Jr - was killed in action at Seicheprey on March 11, 1918 and is buried in the St Mihiel American Cemetery, which is only half a mile down the road from where Eleanor is buried.

 So, how did Eleanor come to be buried there? I have no idea, although it seems clear that she felt a great need to be near her son's grave. I'd love to know more. Did she move to France shortly after WWI finished? Or did she provide for her burial there in a will?

There is probably no way to know for sure, but I will probably keep looking for a while. If I find more, I'll provide an update.

Friday, January 17, 2014

If you're looking for my older blog posts...

This account used to be part of Irish Central, but it isn't any more. I will still be blogging at Irish Central, but I just thought I'd make all the posts I've done for that site visible here. I don't know how many of my older posts are visible at Irish now.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

No crossing the Irish border say some car rental companies

Dun Luce Castle in Co Antrim - off limits to tourists as far as Argus Car Hire is concerned.

I had an eye-opener last week. I had reserved a rental car for New Year's Day to take the family to Belfast for a function, but when I had a close look at the terms and conditions I saw, buried on page 4, "All cross-border travel disallowed."

Stunning. Jaw-dropping. Argus Car Hire left me flabbergasted.

I thought those days were way in the past. I mean, both parts of Ireland have been part of the 'Single Market' within the EU since 1987. It's over 15 years since the agreement signed on Good Friday 1998 heralded a new peace up north and new relationships between the north and south.

Among those new relationships is Tourism Ireland, established in 2002, to market "the island of Ireland overseas as a holiday destination." That's the whole island, one entity, north AND south together. 2002 - 12 years ago now.

Like I said, I was stunned. Still, I had options. I had only booked the car because my own car needed some repairs and my mechanic had said he couldn't get the parts before the New Year. However, my mechanic called on the 30th to say he had received the parts and that he was ready to go to work on my car. So my own car was ready by New Year's Day, but it was too late to cancel the rental car. I figured I would use the rental anyway.

Too late? Yes, too late. That I had to give 48 hours notice to cancel my booking was not buried in the terms and conditions. I knew I couldn't cancel the booking without being charged for the rental. That's why I set off to get the car even though I didn't need it and only canceled the booking when I realized I couldn't use the car anyway.

Then I started thinking ... what about all those tourists who book a car for their vacation, the one they decided to take after they were sold on the "island of Ireland" as a dream destination? What happens to those people if they booked through Argus Car Hire? (And they are almost certainly not the only ones who bar cross-border travel.)

My guess is that most of them never realize they aren't allowed to take the car over the border. Why would it occur to them? They're going to Ireland. That's how it was sold to them, right? It would only become an issue if something happened, if they were involved in a car accident or the car was stolen. That's when they'd learn that they had unwittingly violated the terms of their contract. Then they'd have issues. Big issues.

And, just in case you're unsure what it's like to cross the border, it's like going from Bergen County, NJ to Rockland County, NY. In other words, if you're on a highway you'll probably realize that you've changed jurisdictions, but if you're on a smaller road you could easily be unaware that you'd wandered over the border. It is in no way like passing into Canada from America.

That's the point. That's why Tourism Ireland exists. As far as tourism is concerned it's "the island of Ireland" and car rental companies - I'm looking at you Argus Car Hire - are obviously part of the tourism industry. It's more than time that they acknowledge the realities of tourism in Ireland in 2014.