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All Quiet on the Western Front

In the last week of September 2008, the English newspaper “Chard & Ilminster’ published a two-page feature article entitled “The Hero’s return’.  It told the story of a journalist who had travelled from Melbourne, Australia to the killing-fields of the Western-front in Northern France. It told of the terrible battle of Cambrai that had taken so many lives there in the winter of 1917, and it told of a homecoming, and the emotional service that accompanied it. 

The journalist had taken soil from the battle-site in a symbolic taking up of spirit, whereupon he had collected the essence of his Great grandfather’s life, and his ultimate sacrifice in battle.  When the hallowed soil from the battlefield was laid to rest, it was at the grave of the soldier’s widow whom he had left behind for war 92 years earlier, and had never seen again. For the journalist, this moment marked a time of amazing grace.

The Final day.

“They shall not grow old as we who 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”.  Former Royal Green-jackets army chaplain, the Reverend Tony Woodward presided with sensitivity and thoughtful words of compassion.  He welcomed Walter Stacey home, then blessed his spirit and entrusted it to the bosom of the Lord.  A lone Bugler sounded the emotionally charged Last Post as the soil I had brought from Cambrai slid between my fingers, and sprinkled gently across the small rectangle of exposed earth of Bessie-Kates humble grave.  A detachment of Army cadets stood rigid at attention, their young heads thankfully so far removed from the reality of their Rifles regiment current deployment. Their officer, a young female lieutenant stood proudly, as on behalf of the modern British army she paid homage to Walters’ now incorporated regiment, the Somerset light infantry.  Before them, and taking their salute, the Mayor of Chard stood resplendent in full Red-robe and chains of office. Beside him stood his wife, and beside her, the town Councillor.

An Aussie 50 cent

A stirring eulogy by Walters grandson John, my own Uncle, brought home the sadness and poignancy of the service. In a voice betaken by years of knowing and acknowledgement, John delivered words that effected all who attended, and captured everything that everyone else would liked to have said, had they been able to put their thoughts and emotions to words.

Arced around the gravesite a dozen or so of Walter’s descendants stood solemnly silent as John spoke of his grandmother’s tears and of the terrible cost of war.  So many years had passed since we had all been in the same place at the same time; the ceremony had finally brought the scattered fragments of Walter’s family together again.

But that was what the story had always been about.  When I wrote the original screenplay of Bringing Walter Home, the outcome was a re-uniting of family, not only of Walter with his beloved Bessie-Kate, but also of a fractured line likewise torn apart by the tragic memory and ramifications of his loss.

Battlefield soil at Gonnelieu

This day in September had been ten-years in the making; ten-years of knowing about Walter, and researching the battle, and writing short stories and screenplays; ten-years of alchemically changing my own life from one of fictional-conjecture, to one of meaningful-reality.  I had stood beside my great-grandmother’s grave in a West-country cemetery with members of my family I had never known before this day. I had spiritually united her once again with her long-lost soldier husband, and I had captured it all on film.

Not only was this the finale to a journey that had taken me from one side of the world to the other, but it was also the final day of shooting.  About ten days earlier we had begun filming the journey to bring Walter home, starting when we had loaded-up a touring-bike and headed across to the Nord Pas de Calais region of northern France.

“…how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me”.

September 6th, 2008
The ferry from Dover was leaving at 12.30pm and we had to get to the terminal and be checked in at least thirty minutes prior to departure.  I had intended being on the road by 7am at the latest, but at 7.15 I was still putting on my waterproofs while gulping at cold coffee.  The tyres finally hit the road at 7.22am, and although the weather was dry, the roads were still damp, and clouds were threatening rain.  It was less than perfect riding conditions, especially two-up with a full rack of gear.  We had nearly 300 miles to cover, and about four and a half hours to do it in.

We headed out through Ilminster, then onto the A303 where I made up for lost time on the long, smooth, high-speed road that would eventually scream me onto the motorway near Guilford. We turned off onto the M55 where we lost more time again, when the traffic slowed drastically, skirting the edge of London. The ride was more of a tedious blur than a memorable journey, with the possible exception that we passed Stonehenge en-route. I remember pointing it out to Claire as we sped by, and thinking we’d definitely have to go there after this was done.

We stopped for coffee at some highway services along the way where I bought the required GB sticker that I had to display on the bike somewhere. We’d covered about a hundred and fifty miles in the last two and a half hours and time was against us.  We had a fast ride for the next part of the journey though, but after a while, the bland high-speed motorway became monotonous.  The boredom was suddenly broken however at the crest of the last hill leading down to the terminal itself when we caught a savage cross-wind off the channel and the bike sheered off to the left violently, the front wheel taking a mind of it’s own for a split-second, skating on the slippery, white road-markings and jerking me back to reality and 100% interested again.  Minutes later we arrived at the French customs check a little wide-eyed, a little shaken, a little stirred and totally unprepared.  I asked the guy in the little booth what he wanted from me, my passport didn’t even enter my head.  By the time I knew what I was looking for I had a queue of cars behind me.  He told me to move my bike out of the way to let them through.  I moved the bike to one side and rummaged in the tank bag looking for my travel documents.

Eventually we both found our passports and handed them over.  The French border guard took them, stamped them, handed them back and sent us on our way.  The whole time myself and Claire stood there in full-face helmets wearing sunglasses.  It occurred to me that he either wasn’t really bothered about border security, or that he thought we were just too stupid to be dangerous.  As far as I was concerned though I had just slipped through un-challenged, and all of a sudden I felt like one of the secret-agent characters I’d created; then Smuggling came to mind. Moments later we checked into the terminal and joined our loading queue.  We didn’t have to queue for very long though; we’d arrived with just minutes to spare.

With the bike duly parked and strapped onto the ferry’s vehicle deck, we made our way up to the bar and ordered a couple of drinks or four.  Then we were off, and the white cliffs of Dover bid us fare-ye-well as the boat slipped out through the harbour walls and into the grey-blue waters of the channel.  For the next five days England would be a memory, and for the next hour and a half walking upright would be a problem. 

The sea wasn’t so much rough, just very rolly in all directions, and the ferry, despite it’s size pitched and rolled with every crest and every wave and every trough, and the bourbon I so carefully nursed likewise followed suit.  We wandered drunkenly aft for a cigarette on the open deck, then lolled our way back like a couple of drunken clowns, laughing and staggering and spilling our drinks, before flopping into a pair of Rat-class seats near the bar where we stayed for the rest of the voyage. 

As we approached the French coast the clouds moved away and the sun began to shine.  The sea had settled now and the air was noticeably warmer and smelled sweet like Croissants and Red wine.  Through the large fore windows of the ferry I saw the sandy beaches of Calais rushing to welcome us…we had arrived in France.

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