The Awoingt British Cemetery in Northern France is relatively easy to find.
Well, actually, we did get lost once on that hot July afternoon but we blamed that on the GPS system, which sent us down a dead-end road and almost into a field. Then, suddenly, there was the sign we had been looking for directing us to the Awoingt British Cemetery.
Awoingt is a small village, three kilometres east-southeast of Cambrai in Picardy in Northern France. It is situated just a little south of the main road (the N43) between Cambrai and Le Cateau.
The four of us - my husband and I, and my cousin and her husband - had earlier left St. Quentin after a pleasant lunch. Our mission was to find the First World War cemetery in Awoingt, where my father’s older brother is buried. The cemetery contains 653 Commonwealth war graves plus 63 graves of other nationalities, mostly German, and one special memorial to a casualty whose grave can no longer be located in the cemetery.
Eric Francis Stofer was killed in action in 1918 when he was only 19. Dad hardly remembered him; he was barely seven years old when his brother Eric left home to fight for King and country in 1916. The story goes that Eric was so patriotic that he had lied about his age so he could join up and, eventually, be sent abroad to where all the action was happening.
We were unprepared for the awesome, tranquil beauty of Awoingt and the sight of numerous white headstones belonging to young men whose average age was only 20. It did not seem feasible that so many lives had been sacrificed in that so-called Great War - the war to end all wars. And Awoingt, surrounded today by picturesque cornfields, was just one of many cemeteries in Flanders Fields.
Eric was a private in the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment. We easily found his clearly marked grave. He was reported missing in action in late October 1918, and probably died in one of the nearby casualty clearing stations before his remains were buried at Awoingt.
Sadly, today there are no family members left to answer questions about this young man. According to some research we did, however, we knew Eric enlisted and served first with the Essex Yeomanry. He and all the other new recruits would have gone through a 14-week basic training course, while being held in England until eligible to be sent overseas.
These recruits were known as “A4 men” who were defined as fit in all respects, except age. They had to be 19 to be sent overseas. It was later reported that, in fact, these young boys received more training than the older men and, therefore, inevitably provided the backbone of the winning army.
My father had always kept a photograph of his “hero big brother” astride a horse. He passed the photograph on to me. This picture suggested to us that when Eric was finally mobilized abroad, he might have been part of the artillery that pulled the big guns behind their horses. Eric loved horses but was probably unprepared for the horrors of war. He hated guns.
On that hot July afternoon, it was hard for us to associate all the beauty there with how it must have been nearly 100 years ago when the reverberation of guns, the misery of death and the hopelessness of seeing comrades fall in battle, were all that surrounded those men.
We remained silent as we wandered between rows upon rows of headstones, gazed at names and imagined each of those young men who had experienced the horror of war so long ago.
I thought about the lines of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” I also remembered an old family story: my grandmother could never bear to listen to the old First World War song “Roses Are Blooming in Picardy" after she lost her beloved son just two weeks before Armistice Day. She would be happy to know that today a single rose bush blooms alongside his grave.
My father always regretted that he never visited his brother’s grave. I was glad we had made this pilgrimage and found our family hero but, still, I needed more. I wanted to feel that Eric’s death and the deaths of all those other young men held meaning. I needed to know that they had not died in vain.
We signed the visitors’ register and then read the memorial about how the land was donated by the French people. It stated:
The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the French people
For the perpetual resting place of
Those of the Allied Armies Who fell in the War of 1914-1918
And are honoured here.
My last look back was at the other large granite stone at the rear of the cemetery, which stated simply:
“Their Name Liveth For Evermore.”
Not until we were on the road again heading south towards Normandy, did it finally dawn on me. Without realizing it, I had found what I had been looking for. There had been a purpose to the loss of so many lives. For surely, had it not been for their brave sacrifices in both the First World War and again in the Second World War, we would not have been able to enjoy the freedom to travel through Europe today.
I will never forget Eric, our family hero, or his last resting place, and will always remember him with honour and gratitude.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
NOVEMBER 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND