In 1925, Rudyard Kipling wrote an uncharacteristically restrained and sombre short story called The Gardener. It tells of a woman’s search for her illegitimate son, who goes missing in action on the Western Front. After the Armistice, she learns that he has been killed, and is buried in a military cemetery. Arriving there, she finds a man planting flowers in the earth and asks him where she might find her “nephew”.
The man looks at her “with infinite compassion,” and tells her “Come with me, and I will show you where your son lies”. As she leaves the graveyard, she looks back, and sees the man bending over his plants; “and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener”.
Those words, an echo of Mary Magdalene’s first sight of the Risen Jesus, often strike our generation as out of place. But for Kipling, who had lost his own son in the war (“Have you any news of my boy Jack?” begins his most heart-wrenching poem), the Easter reference was natural. He never wavered in his belief that Jack and all the rest had given their lives for others.
…Well, perhaps it was because of Easter, or perhaps because of the centenary year but, coming back from Strasbourg last week after the final session of the current European Parliament, I decided finally to visit Thiepval, where my great-uncle, William James Hannan, is commemorated along with 73,000 other British and South African soldiers.
I know little about the man, except that he was said to have been a promising golfer. He was killed in the Somme bloodbath on 21 October 1916, aged 24….
Today, our grief is second-hand: almost none of us knew any of the war dead. But but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this makes it ersatz. Try looking up the details of your ancestors on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website – or indeed, if you’re male, try typing in your own name, and counting how many matches come up – and see how easily the tragedy touches you across the intervening century.
Kipling’s generation, the generation that mourned its sons, was the first to pass; then the generation which mourned its comrades; then that which mourned its fathers, clinging, perhaps, to fragmentary childhood picture-memories. Then the fallen became faces in yellowing photographs. Now they are names on family trees. Soon, they will be only notches on slabs. Yet we will remember them.