I have been on the verge of sobbing and tears four times four days in a row. Moved emotionally, not upset or hurt. We were in Mons, Belgium.
The relics of St. Waudru
The Doudou–the Battle between St. George and the Dragon
This was my third visit, the first in 2008 for research, then 2014 for commemorative events for the Battle of Mons, then 2015, and this time to give a presentation at the museum on my novel.
Our dear friend and guide, Christian Massy, took us to the new Doudou museum which celebrates two ceremonies held each year, one, sacred, in the morning, the other, more festive, but filled with symbolism, in the afternoon. There is a video of the relics of St. Waudru, patroness of the city and its founding, being lowered in their gold reliquary, to the place of repose. This came at the end of the church celebration of a mass attended by about one thousand. As I watched, I sobbed with emotion and tears streamed from my eyes. I was touched to the heart.
The next day we went to visit the grave of Captain Malcolm Leckie, RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) brother in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a major character in my novel. This was the second time I visited it. This time a historian, expert in that part of the battle, which took place on August 24 at Frameries, Belgium, a village near Mons, accompanied us, a group of six, to explain what happened there that night. We also passed the site of the hospital where Leckie died four days later, a prisoner of war, wounded in the neck by shrapnel. Once again, I had to stifle sobs, but tears came, needing to be wiped away.
The next day Sarah and I took a quick trip by train from Lille, France to Arras, France to visit the Wellington Quarry. Here New Zealander and Australian miners worked for six months to connect very old underground limestone quarries—twelve miles worth, to house 24,000 British and Australian troops for eight days. On the ninth day they emerged from tunnels that had been dug to the surface thirty feet above to surprise the Germans in an attack. Like so many battles, this one was successful for a few hours then turned into a defeat. When we saw documentary footage of the battle, once again my body responded with sobs and tears. Fortunately, I was able to suppress this. In the midst of two dozen other museum visitors, it would have been unseemly to break down in crying.
Part of the 20 miles of quarry the British Commonwealth forces occupied for eight days before the Battle of Arras.
Entrance to the Wellington Quarry
Finally, on July 13 Sarah and I were in London. We had planned to go to the Tate Art Museum, not the modern art, but the one with old art. The boat we took was the wrong one. We planned to walk the rest of the way there along the embankment. Along the way was Westminster Cathedral. Instead of going to the museum, we decided to visit the Cathedral. In addition to the splendor of the building itself inside and out, there are utterly remarkable remains and memorials to the multitude of heroes, leaders, nobles, kings, queens, princes, princesses, military leaders, and so on. In the vastness of the building we came upon the section devoted to the poets and writers. I could barely contain my feelings, being in the presence of William Blake, the remains of Chaucer, Caedmon, the first poet to write in English, Shelly, Keats—memorials, not graves for them, Wordsworth, Coleridge, a memorial to the many poets of World War I—even as I write this, tears want to come. The bones of Aphra Behn, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, and many more.
Four days, sobs and tears. How grateful I am. I learn something about myself. Maybe it has to do with gratitude and sadness, wonder and joy. Happily, Sarah is with me and shares these feelings. It is good to squeeze hands and share a tissue. These feelings remain with me and arise anew when I think about them.
Now that I am at work on another novel about World War I, I hope to draw on these feeling and put them to good use in the book about the Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel. The main cast of characters are from South Carolina. While most ceremonies attend to sacrifice and honor, I find myself touched by the loss. Young men who do not live to see harvest the fruits of life. Parents, brothers and sisters, wives, children, friends who are bereft of loved ones. Promise unfulfilled.