Today I walked down a poppy road to visit a long lost uncle. The road from Villers-Faucon to Roisel is straight like many roads in France. At this time of year it is edged by a border of flaming red poppies. A reminder of those soldiers who walked the same road 100 years ago.
My great uncle was one of those men and today I am visiting his grave in the war cemetery in Roisel. The landscape is flat and treeless. Where soldiers once fought one of the bloodiest battles in history, a solitary French farmer drives a tractor backwards and forwards, tilling the fields.
The air is still and humid. A muggy day as we would say in Leicester, my home town and his. I walk in silence thinking of him and his family, whose grave I visited often in my childhood with my Mam, his niece. She never knew where he was buried. The family grave just said, somewhere in France. I discovered it on the web and now I’m walking down this road to pay my respects, the first relative to do so.
I am not alone, Vishva is walking with me. Once more supporting me as she has always done. We do not speak. She knows I am lost in my thoughts about family and friends no longer with us.
It is early and there is a still silence that hangs over the fields. In the distance a cuckoo calls. My Mam’s favourite sound was a cuckoo clock. Her grandchildren called her cuckoo grandma. I know she is walking with me, as she always did. Standing on the touch line to support and protect. This walk is for her. It is only fitting she should share it.
We arrive at the gate. There are so many war cemeteries in France. They all look similar. There are too many. We should never forget that too many, mainly young, men died, in that pointless war. My great uncle was just one of them.
But this cemetery is special as it marks his last resting place. I think of how the news of his death in a foreign field would have effected my great grandparents and the rest of his family. He was just one of the millions who died but to them he was special. Just as everyone else in the graveyard was special to someone. Even when millions are slaughtered, we should never forget that each life is precious and each death tragic.
In the wall there is a metal safe. I open it and take out the roll of honour. I find his name, William Henry Crowson, killed in action 18th April, 1917. That is all together with his regiment, The Leicestershire Regiment, and his grave reference. I wish there were more. I wanted to know what they were doing in this small village and how he died. That information is now lost. All we have left is his name and memory.
I walk along the ranks of headstones until I reach his. Standing amongst a group of comrades from The Leicestershire Regiment. I am pleased to see he is not alone. He is with his pals. In death as in life. They marched together. They died together.
I have brought a cross and a poppy from home. I place it on his grave and stand in silence. I read the inscription, paid for by his brother, another great uncle. “Gone but not forgotten.” I am living proof that he was not forgotten. The childhood walks to the cemetery in Leicester showed that my Mam never forgot him, though he died before she was born. I will pass this story on to my family in the hope of keeping his name alive. A young man who died and is buried in a grave so far from his home.
I shed a tear as I stand in front of his headstone. There are no sounds to break the silence and peace of this special place. I touch the grave for the last time as I turn to walk away. Somewhere in the distant a cuckoo’s call cuts the silent air. I know she is saying her own goodbye and thanking me for taking a Sunday morning walk along a poppy road to a graveyard somewhere in France.