Thiepval, France 1934
The Thiepval Memorial to The Somme Missing commemorates the 72,246 servicemen atomised by shellfire, buried in collapsed trenches or shredded by machine gun bullets during the Battles of the Somme from 1915 to 1918. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, construction began in 1928 and was completed four years later.
Maggie had travelled by bus from Albert to the village of Thiepval. She thanked the driver and stepped down from the bus and walked along the road towards monument in the early spring sunshine. An earlier shower of rain had released the herbal aroma of the grass, and the scent of the flowers that embroidered the healed landscape: yellow cowslip and primrose, the intense blue forget-me-nots, white daisies and battalions of tall poppies. Below the salient, a shroud of morning mist lay in the hollows. The signs directing her to the Thiepval Monument were unnecessary. Crouched on the ridge that had cost so many lives during the ebb and flow of the war, it was visible from miles around. The largest gravestone in human history.
She looked up at the soaring arch and felt cowed by the morose memorial and intimidated by the incalculable lists of names chiselled into the Portland stone. Maggie had hoped to feel a spiritual connection with her dead husband Thomas. A whispered word or a finger brushing her cheek. But, as she traced the carved letters of a random name, she felt nothing, an emptiness. Perhaps, she thought, he was lost in the throng of clamouring ghosts, unheard in the void between this world and the next.
“It is sad, is it not?” said a voice behind her, “seventy thousand young men dead. And for what? Then the living? Parents grieving a lost son, wives a husband, and children a father. Remnants like you and I. The sad leavings of this war.”
Maggie turned. She was not the callous temptress Maggie had imagined. Instead she was facing a lady of middle years, her eyes soft with sorrow and a kind smile.
Maggie stiffened. “Your son, is he here?”
“Marcel!” Madame Fournier called out.
A young boy of perhaps fifteen years appeared from behind one of the columns, dwarfed by the pale tablets of letters as he walked through the vast vaulted space.
“Marcel, voici Madame Henderson.”
“Bonjour Madame.” Said Marcel with adolescent coyness.
He had Thomas’s pale blue eyes, the slight quizzical tilt of his head and the lopsided upturn of his mouth when he had smiled at her. Smiled at her in happier times.
Maggie gasped and spread her fingers across her breastbone as if to hold her beating heart in place. This boy was her husband’s son.
“Thomas loved you so much. I am not the ‘femme fatale’ you think. We simply sought solace from the horrors of a terrible war. It was horror heaped upon horror.”
Maggie knew Madam Fournier was speaking the truth. Through his letters and poetry Thomas had tried to convey the brutal nature of the war, the horror she spoke of.
“I wanted inform you……..wanted you to know your daughter has a brother and Thomas had a son.”
Maggie still could not speak. Through the side arch she could see a lark rise, fluttering from the field of flowers to sing in the blue sky.
“I am so sorry that I have hurt you…I am sorry. Perhaps this has not been the correct thing to do, non?”
“No, you have done the correct thing.” Maggie whispered.