Their Name Liveth For Evermore
A Pilgrimage to the Battlefields of the Western Front
Chris Davies - Head Verger
In May of 2017 my Dad and I visited the First World War battlefields of the Nord Pas-de-Calais in France and the Ypres Salient in Belgium. A pilgrimage we had initially done in 2009 to find the graves of two of my father’s great uncles, Bombardier Bernard Rallison of the Royal Artillery killed in action 23rd June 1916 near Ypres and 2nd Lieutenant Victor Edward Rallison of the Manchester Regiment killed in action on 7th April 1917 near Arras. We had been the first of any of our family to visit their graves and felt it only right to go back during the centenary of the First World War.
Back in 2014 at the beginning of the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the war I had done extensive research into the men on St James’s war memorial. I quickly became intrigued by their stories. Men who had lived in our parish and worshipped, sung and prayed in our Church. These were members of our community a century ago who, for whatever complex motivation, joined a generation of young men who answered the call to serve King and Country and paid for it with their lives. Not all ages were known but of those that were the oldest was Captain Harry Pulman aged 47; the youngest, Private John Deal, killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 aged just 19.
While I was planning my family pilgrimage I resolved to find and visit the graves or memorials of the men from St James’s who fought and died in the same region as my family members. A region that covers some of the most ferocious battlefields of the Western Front including the Somme, Ypres, Langemark and Passchendaele.
On 16th May 2017 we left Folkestone for Calais with our sights set of finding and paying our respects to members of what the American novelist Gertrude Stein called The Lost Generation. Over the course of the next three days we drove more than 500 miles, visited over 30 cemeteries and memorials and visited the graves or memorials of more than 360,000 men from the armies of the British Empire, France and Germany. Alongside our family members we were able to visit the grave or memorial of 17 St James’s parishioners.
The sites that we visited were hugely moving and served as poignant reminders to an entire generation, obliterated. My father told me that what affected him the most was the thought that each grave or name on a memorial that we walked past was a soldier killed, but behind them stood an entire family torn apart by grief. What struck me most vividly was that many of these men were around my age, swept along on a wave of nationalist sentiment of the superiority of Britain and her Empire, filled with confidence, pride and the spirit of adventure. They were unwittingly led like lambs to the slaughter, on the back of outdated military tactics and policy, wholly unprepared for the full horror of 20th century mechanised warfare.
We visited lots of the well-known sites, unmissable on any tour of the battlefields, but we also visited many smaller British cemeteries to find more of the men of St James’s or simply stopped off at cemeteries we passed. Many of these lie on quiet rural roads and (apart from the large ‘tourist’ sites like Theipval and Vimy Ridge) we often enjoyed these spaces accompanied only by the birdsong. Each cemetery is beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and while they varied in shape and style all had striking similarities. The small white headstones of identical size and shape regardless of rank, most contain a simple Lutyens stone of remembrance inscribed with the commemoration “Their Name Liveth For Evermore” and the cross of sacrifice which stands before the silent rows of graves. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu soldiers are all commemorated in the same way differentiated only by the religious symbol on their headstone. Perhaps the most moving graves, however, were those marked with a simple cross and inscribed “A Soldier of the Great War Known unto God”. Thousands of them across the Western Front.
Notable Cemeteries and Memorials Visited:
May they, and all who gave their lives, rest in peace. Their name liveth for evermore.
Chris Davies, 2017