Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 4 – Life and Death ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues the tale of her weekend with The Silent Eye in Derbyshire…

I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part four of my account, parts one, two and three can be found here…

(Apologies for the slight delay between posts – I had a project that needed finishing and another that needed starting, so have been focusing on those for the past few days. However, let’s now head back to Derbyshire and the next stop on my journey…)

Continue reading at Helen Jones’ blog.

Facing Fear With The Silent Eye, Part 2 – Pestilence ~ Helen Jones

Helen Jones continues her account of the recent weekend in Derbyshire…

I recently attended a workshop, with The Silent Eye, about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part two of my account, part one can be found here

‘Go and have a look around. We’ve got a bit of time yet before the others get here.’

I can’t move.

We were standing in a courtyard, once the stable yard of the nearby manor house. The buildings had been converted into shops and restaurants, jewellery, homewares, tea and scones all set out for visitors. It was a gorgeous place, sun shining on golden-grey stone, pretty tables, green trees.

I can’t move.

Waves were battering her from all sides, sorrow overwhelming. But they were toxic, polluted, like water disturbed in a stagnant pond. It was difficult to breathe.

I should have known when my body started to tingle as we crossed the boundary into the village. But this was… intense. I took a couple of photos but, even though Sue suggested once more that I have a look around, I still couldn’t move, feeling assailed on all sides. The air seemed filled with floating flecks of gold. It was a very, very strange place.

Continue reading at Journey to Ambeth

Rites of Passage: A mother’s grief

High above the village of Eyam, overlooking the hills, valleys and rock edges of Derbyshire, is a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful spot and well worth the walk along the leafy lane for the magnificent views of the landscape. But this is Eyam and these are the Riley Graves… and their weathered stones tell the saddest of stories.

It was the summer of 1666 and exceptionally warm. The bubonic plague was at its height in Eyam, the village that had chosen to quarantine itself rather than risk the spread of disease to the neighbouring town and villages. There were no public gatherings, except in Cucklett Delph on the outskirts of the settlement; people stayed away from each other as much as possible in the hope of escaping infection and the churchyard was no longer used for burials, with each family burying their own dead.

The Hancock family had a small farmstead on the edge of the village at Riley Top, close to the home of the Talbot family. Talbot was a blacksmith and had a smithy close to the road, as well as working the land. Having already survived a year of the plague in the village, perhaps the two families had hope that their isolated position and the fruits of their land might keep them and their children safe.

On the fifth of July, 1666, Briget and Mary, daughters of Richard and Catherine Talbot, fell victim to the plague and their father buried them beside their home. In the days that followed, Richard buried two more of his children, Ann and Robert, and his wife, Catherine, before he too succumbed to infection. Only one child remained, and when he too died, on the thirtieth of July, there were none but the Hancock family to bury him.

That final act of charity was to prove fatal. Just days later, on the third of August, two of the Hancock children, John and Elisabeth, sickened and died.  With her husband already ailing, the grieving  mother buried her children, digging shallow graves with her own hands and dragging their bodies to a spot close to their home, with a towel wrapped around their feet to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of carrying infection back to the rest of her family.

I cannot begin to imagine how that felt for the grieving mother. When someone we love passes over, regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we want to see their bodies treated with care and respect… it is a final act of love. In my mind, I see a woman not only grieving for her lost child, but the horror and despair she must have felt, seeing and feeling the small body bounce and scrape over the earth. Necessity may give us the strength to act in a manner far beyond that of which we would normally be capable, but it does not take away the horror or the pain.

Elizabeth’s son, Oner, died during the night of the sixth of August, followed a few minutes later by his father, John, and, before dawn, young William also died. Once more, Elizabeth faced the appalling task of digging their graves and dragging the bodies of her loved ones across the rough field to bury them.

Only two daughters now remained with Elizabeth. Alice died on the ninth of August and Ann on the tenth. For the last time, Elizabeth dug graves for her children, laying them beneath the earth of home with her own hands, watched, from a neighbouring hilltop by the villagers of Stoney Middleton.

It is almost impossible to imagine what she must have felt. The grief for the loss of her husband and, almost certainly, the loss of her home and livelihood on land she could not farm alone. The searing grief that any mother feels when a life begun within her own body, nurtured beneath and within her heart, is extinguished, must have been multiplied not by six, but a thousand times.

When a child is ill or in pain, all a parent wants to do take that pain away. To watch one child suffer, knowing there is nothing you can do to ease that suffering, and no way to prevent them dying a horrible and painful death… to watch their fear and pain as the disease progresses… will  feel like a knife twisting in a parent’s heart. To have to watch as first your friends, then all of your children, and your partner too, fall victim to such a dreadful predator as the plague, is unimaginable.

With no-one to whom she could turn to for comfort, no shoulder upon which she could weep…and the inevitable guilt and dreadful questions that must have plagued her about why she alone had survived, Elizabeth had to find a way to live. Eventually, she left her home to spend the rest of her days with her surviving son, who had been away from the village serving an apprenticeship. It was this son who later erected the memorial stones to his father, brothers and sisters. Around his father’s tomb are carved the words Orate Vigilate Nescitis Horam, which roughly means, ‘watch and pray, you know not the hour’. Upon the top of the tomb, is inscribed:

Remember man

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even once was I;

As I doe now

So must thou lie,

Remember man

That thou must die.

It is a good reminder that the stories we tell and see played out upon the pages of history are our own. It is all too easy to look at events from which we are separated by time, culture or distance as if we were looking at a television screen. We can look and yet maintain our personal space, deflect the emotional impact, almost pretend that those involved are not ‘real’ people. We do not do so deliberately, it is probably a defence mechanism, especially in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by so many images of violence and tragedy that, were we to take each one to heart as if it were our own, we would founder beneath the weight of grief and despair.

Sometimes, our protective barriers are torn down and we are as one with the victims of tragedy. How many, for example, who watched the Twin Towers fall, will ever forget or be unmoved?  Even those of us who were half a world away. Sometimes a story touches us and we open ourselves to it. It becomes personal. The separations wrought by time and distance mean nothing as we share, for a moment, the life of another human soul.

Not one of us would wish to face such a nightmare scenario and none can know how we would cope or how we would act in such circumstances. But we can recognise a parent’s love for their children and hope that even while fear might drive us to reaction, love would call up a deeper strength that would allow us to act from the heart.

As we outlined the story of the Riley Graves for our companions, both empathy and sympathy blossomed as Elizabeth’s story touched our hearts. We could stand in her shoes, just for a moment, protected by the passage of time, and feel an echo of her fear, loss and grief. Her home is now gone, its stones long-since removed and absorbed into the walls that criss-cross the landscape. But, although the graves of her family, within their enclosure, still seem an open wound upon the green of the field, for most of us, the overwhelming impression with which we were left was one of love.

Rites of Passage: Light and shade

We walked through the village, watching the changing expressions of visitors as the full horror of the plague story hit home. From the mildly curious to the stark shock of those who aligned themselves with the  story for a moment, it was interesting to observe those who merely skimmed the history from an emotional distance and those for whom empathy made it personal. It is difficult to keep the story at bay if you open yourself to what people experienced, rather than seeing them just as characters on the page of history.

Central to the story of the villagers’ response to the plague in 1665 was the church, even though all services were soon moved to a nearby field to try and prevent the spread of the disease, and it was there that we were heading.

There has been a church in Eyam since before the records of its incumbents began. Its first recorded rector served here in 1250, though its story goes back much further.  In the churchyard stands an intricately carved ‘Celtic’ cross of Mercian design, dating back to the eighth century, preserving that mix of Pagan and Christian symbolism that typifies the style. The top part of the shaft is missing, broken long ago for use in domestic building, and we cannot help wondering what artwork and symbolism was lost.

Within the churchyard is the tomb of Catherine Mompesson, the Rector’s wife, who had stayed in the village when others left, to support her husband and his congregation. Her husband had wanted her to leave when they sent their children to Yorkshire for safety during the early days of the plague, but she had refused to go. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak, having contracted the disease whilst nursing those infected. You can only imagine how she and her husband must have felt as they faced these decisions. Catherine is buried close to her husband’s church. She was just twenty seven years old.

The current church of St Lawrence is a mainly fourteenth century building, yet traces of its earlier history are easy to find.

In this small church there is a feeling of living history, the continuity is caught and held here somewhere between the ancient burial urn, interred on the moor three and a half thousand years ago and the Saxon font that has seen the baptism of villagers for over a thousand years.

The font stands in St Helen’s chapel and close by a medieval grave slab bearing St Helen’s Cross is set into the wall.

All in all, it is one of those old churches that seems, on the face of it, to have everything we get excited about. It is obviously loved by its parishioners, is well cared-for and, from the children’s corner to the village notices around the church, still very much part of the community today. And yet, there is an oppressive atmosphere, felt by most of us, as if the ghost of sickness still clings to the place, not helped by the story of the plague displayed in the side chapel and the book listing the names of those who died; a place designed for spiritual inspiration given over to the memory of old death.

Wall paintings show the twelve tribes of Israel and a Memento Mori of grinning skeletons. But there are a number of beautiful stained glass windows, one of which commemorates Mompesson and his congregation, with vignettes telling their story, from the outbreak of the plague to the tragedy of Emmot Sydall and Rowland Torre, lovers who lived either side of the quarantine boundary.

Emmot, a young woman in her early twenties, lived in Eyam. Rowland lived in Stoney Middleton, a neighbouring village just a short walk away. They would meet every day, as young lovers do, and when the quarantine was imposed, their meetings continued, though they could only shout to each other from a distance.

John Sydall, Emmot’s father, lived with his family opposite the cottage where the plague had broken out. He and four of his children were amongst the first to die. In the spring of 1666, Emmot failed to come to the rendezvous with Rowland. He returned every day to the appointed spot, until the quarantine ended some months later. At the first opportunity, he walked into Eyam to seek for his love, only to be told that she had fallen ill and died in April. One sad story amongst so many…

The Mompesson window also contains a ring of roses, in reference to the nursery rhyme, long thought to be associated with the story of the plague. In some ways, it is ironic that the beauty and fragrance of roses should be forever joined in the folk record with such a horrific episode in human history. In others, regardless of the historicity of the attribution, it is a good reminder that apparent beauty may hide its thorns and its petals strew a path to despair, and yet, when we face the horror of our darkest fears, our choices may lift us to the Light.

In spite of its beauty, no-one felt like lingering in the church. There were still two more places we wanted to take our companions that afternoon… and, as we walked out into the sunshine, we were acutely aware that the next story we had to share could be harrowing…

Rites of Passage: The weight of history

It was a beautiful day, and our first port of call on the weekend workshop was the picturesque Derbyshire village of Eyam which nestles within the shelter or moorland hills. With its mellow stone, quaint cottages spanning centuries of architecture, a medieval church and the riotous colour of its cottage gardens, it should be the perfect place to spend a pleasant afternoon… but we had other ideas and Eyam is a village with a long history and a story to tell.

On the moors above Eyam are a number of barrows and ruined stone circles, almost lost beneath the heather and bracken, attesting to a living presence in this area since before recorded history. With views across to Higger Tor and Carl Wark, which we had visted on a previous workshop, there is little doubt that these sites were linked to the wider landscape, both mundane and sacred.

The Romans mined lead beneath the spot that grew into a village and many caverns and mines are still being explored by cavers… with names like Merlin Mine and Carlwark Cavern adding to the sense of mystery.

The village of Eyam, though, was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, who called it Aium, which comes from the Old English word for ‘island’. It was to become a prophetic name, as Eyam is best known for its role and reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague that struck the village in 1665.

Bales of flea-infested cloth are thought to have brought the disease to the village; the tailor, Alexander Hadfield, had ordered materials from plague-ridden London, where, by August of that year, ten thousand people a week were dying of the plague, according to the St Paul’s Broadsheet…which also contained adverts for astrologers, coffins and dubious remedies.

A previous outbreak of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century, known as the Black Death, is estimated to have killed around a hundred million people worldwide. The disease, untreatable in the days before antibiotics, was justly feared and almost all who caught it died a swift and painful death.

Extract from St Paul’s Broadsheet, August 1665

The bale of cloth from London was opened by Hadfield’s assistant, George Viccars, who took ill and quickly died, followed by his stepsons and Hadfield himself. The disease spread rapidly, claiming seventy-eight lives in one month alone. Figures vary widely, but it is certain that between a third and three quarters of the villagers died. To a village of just a few hundred souls, this was a shocking loss.

Not all who came into close contact with the disease contracted it. This may be due to a genetic anomaly, still present in villagers today, that renders them immune to the plague. Helen Jones, who was with us on the weekend, pointed us in the direction of new research that suggests the mutant gene, known as Delta 32, increases the body’s immune system and may yet prove to be effective against AIDS and other virulent diseases.

But back in 1665, such glimmers of hope were few and far between. Measures were taken to try and limit the spread of the plague and it is these measures that have earned the village a place in history. Villagers buried their own dead. All church services and gatherings were moved to a field, Cucklett Delph, so that no-one needed to come into close contact with each other, yet the life of the community could continue, at some level at least.

The village, at the urging of Rev. William Mompesson and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, then placed itself under strict quarantine to contain the infection. The Earl of Devonshire, lord of Chatsworth, along with other local notables, ensured the village was supplied with the necessities of survival. Goods were left at the boundary stones and wells, some of which still survive, and still have the depressions that were filled with vinegar to sterilise coins left in payment.

In the early days of the infection, before the quarantine was self-imposed, many who had the means to do so had left the village. Rev. Mompesson and his wife, Catherine, chose to stay, offering what comfort, succour and guidance they could. Catherine was amongst the last to die during the outbreak and is buried outside the church.

The decisions taken by the villagers saved many neighbouring villages from the horror of the plague but we wanted to explore how they must have felt as they cut themselves off from the outside world and watched their loved ones sicken and die, one after the other, never knowing who would be next.

Even today, with the tourist focus on Eyam’s history, a heavy pall of darkness seems to cling to the village. As is so often the case with human tragedy, the outer appearance masks a deeper pain. Walking the pretty street towards the church, we all felt the weight of sorrow… a kind of psychic uncleanliness that modern interest is helping to perpetuate as so many hearts and minds relive the horror felt by parents who watched their children die a horrible death, couples who imagine the death of a partner and children the loss of their parents.

It does no good to bury your head in the sand when disaster strikes, nor does it help to deny or ignore tragedies of the past… such things are part of who we are and will become. But to dwell upon them, constantly reliving them and reanimating the associated emotions, keeps the past all too present.

Such grief, fear and hopelessness … and yet, somehow, when the plague had struck, the villagers of Eyam had found a way to turn from their own despair and had chosen to serve a greater good, protecting the people of their land from the horror that was to decimate their own village. Perhaps this tragic episode in history had something to teach about how we could transmute our own fears?

 

Rites of Passage: Changes…

On the morning of the workshop, long before our companions were due to arrive, two small figures faced a mass of stone and a fair degree of uncertainty. Having scaled the rocky heights, we were agreed… we would have to change the plan. We could not impose that climb on anyone else; we needed to find another way.

It was not that we didn’t know the landscape; we know it well, but fear can cloud judgement and blur lines that should be clear. So, in our usual fashion, unsuitably shod and… in my case at least… with flowing skirts tucked childlike into waistbands, we had gone out early to check over the ground… and, having done so, descended to seek another site. As always, the land provided.

There are some things you just cannot leave to chance… and double or triple checking the lay of the land is an important part of any workshop.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear was never going to be an easy workshop, even without any miscalculations on our part; ‘fear’ is not something many people would want to spend a weekend exploring, at least, not beyond the safe confines of a staged murder mystery or a popcorn-fuelled marathon of horror movies. We prefer more intimate groups, though, where we can spend time with those who attend, sharing ideas. These weekend workshops attract people from many paths and there is always something to learn from each other and discover together.

For this particular workshop, we were going to take the group through a number of landscapes, each with their own story, from one of collective horror to a light-hearted custom whose origins date back beyond living memory.

Our first visit would plunge the group into the shadow of a nightmare scenario, from which threads of light would have to be teased.  Over the next two days, we would walk through prehistoric burial grounds, visit stone circles and approach the core of many human fears.

In the Tarot, the one card guaranteed to get a reaction when it appears is Death. Most packs show a skeleton, often wielding sickle or scythe, reaping life and limb from crowned head to common folk. While it can represent a physical death, in most readings it signifies no more than change… another common fear, especially when that change is unlooked-for and unwelcome.

In an esoteric reading, though, there is another interpretation of the Death card… that of spiritual transformation and increased awareness. From time immemorial, initiation rituals have contained a symbolic ‘death’, bringing the candidate face to face with their own mortality, that they might learn to value the finite nature of physical existence and see beyond it to a greater reality.

There is a case to be made that the apparent death of Lazarus in the biblical tale was an initiatory rite. Even today, the investiture of a knight is made with the touch of a sword and the rites of baptism and initiation alike signify a rebirth into a new life.

But the journey through our darkest fears need not be walked alone. There may be companions on the way with whom we can share experience, or those who have passed that way before to guide us and sometimes, the gift of seeing a wider landscape than our own fears… and a way to make them serve a greater purpose.

As the church bells of Tideswell chimed, we made our way to our first rendezvous….

The ultimate robbery?

sheffield chesterfield hare 590It was going to be one of those conversations…

“… So what do you think happens then?”

“Nothing… non-existence.”

“So what is there to fear in that?”

“Well, I’ll stop existing!” he said, as if that should explain it.

“But if you don’t exist… you won’t exist to know about it. So why be afraid?” I watched the wheels turn, yet even in acceptance of the logic, there was a kickback of ‘yeah, but’. Myself, I am convinced of the survival of the spark of being… not necessarily the ‘me’ I know… perhaps more of ‘me’ than I know, yet not the ‘me’ who walks through life daily and looks out through brown eyes. Not the personality.

I have the best of both worlds, so to speak. If I am right, then there cannot be a reason to fear. If I am wrong, ‘I’ won’t exist to know about it… so there can be no reason to fear.

Dying, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether. Like most people, I worry about the manner in which the Reaper comes calling, even though, when he does, whatever means he imposes will,by definition, be finite.

In an ideal world I would die like my great-grandmother… in her own bed, surrounded by her family and fully aware of what was happening and how. But the world seldom delivers ideal situations and like most people the manner of transit sort of matters. Death itself, though, holds no terror…. no more than birth and just as inevitable, once the process of life incarnate has begun.

“It is dissolution you are afraid of?”

“Yep.” Now, you see, for me there is a subsuming into something greater than our individuality, a loss of the personal self, perhaps, but that personality is only a fragmentary reflection of what we are.

“Ego death.” My interlocutor bristled at that… the connotation of the word ‘ego’ raises spectres of selfishness, yet it should only raise the idea of self centred being. No, he wasn’t going to like that either. Let’s say, ‘a being who looks out at the world from its own central point of focus’ then.

He growled a disclaimer. Dissolution. The loss of who we see ourselves as being now… the only aspect of self we really feel we know. This is what most of us fear when we think of death rather than dying… and probably why we avoid the issue so much in our modern, egocentric society. We view death almost as the ultimate robbery, a violation of who we are.

It wasn’t always thus; once the dead were honoured and their transition seen as just another rite of passage. The bones of the ancestors were kept and venerated, the presence of their spirit welcomed at the hearth; their wisdom, gleaned over a lifetime and beyond, revered.

It is hard to get our heads around the concept of our own ‘not being’; the dissolution of our personality is quite literally unthinkable… how to imagine a state where thought, emotion… we…are not? There are many who attribute the belief in some kind of survival after death as simply a fear-reaction to that unimaginable oblivion. Yet for many of us there is a simple, inner certainty that there is more to it than that.

Yet does it truly matter? Whatever we believe… unless we believe in all the tortures of the various hells… there should be no need to fear. And regardless of what lies beyond the gates of life, we still have to live each day in the world as best we can. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what we will meet then, so much as it matters whether we have lived our lives as if they matter… because every single life does; in our uniqueness we shape the face of the world with every breath and we owe it to ourselves and to each other to make each breath count.

A link in the chain

sunset over the hills

“… and one of these days you will know a world in which I no longer exist.”
“I don’t know that I can imagine that.”
“Possibly not. I have always been part of your world. Before you were born, you could say that I was your world… all your physical experience, at least, came through me…”
“Hmm. Hadn’t thought of it quite that way before…”
“…so a world without me is not within your experience, and might be as hard for you to imagine as a world without you. No point of reference.”

The subject of mortality had been brought to our attention by the passing of a neighbour and friend, a woman whose kindness and wisdom had brought something special to the world. The simple Quaker funeral of a shared silence had been both beautiful and moving, as we each turned our thoughts to how her presence had changed our lives, making the moment one of gratitude and recognition instead of an occasion given solely to grief. Her actions had been the small ones of every day, her life outwardly unremarkable… and yet she had made a huge difference to the lives of her family, friends and neighbours. From her funeral to a deeper conversation was not a big step.

It was an interesting discussion. Because most of us live what we consider to be rather ordinary lives, we do not realise how big an impact we might make. We seldom think about how different things might be for others had we not been around. What might, or might not have happened had we never been.

For a start, how do you imagine not being? You might imagine your own demise… and, in melodramatic moments, there may even be a vague satisfaction or discontent when you consider the aftermath of that event within your intimate circle. A sort of ‘you’ll be sorry when I’m gone’ scenario… even though you will not be there to know about it.  You may be able to picture a future from which you are missing… but when you do so, you are looking at it through your own eyes and therefore it is a false image… you will not be there to see it. The ‘you’ you are now will no longer exist.

Even less can we conceive of a world in which we have never been. Any attempt to subtract ourselves from the reality we know, will have so many ramifications that such a world truly is impossible to imagine.  The thousands of lives we have affected or will affect, directly or indirectly, from the moment of our conception, down the generations, to the furthest ends of time, would each of them be changed had we never come into being. Many of those lives might never exist, were we never to have been. Subtract just one person from existence… not by death, which is a natural part of life, but by erasing them from the annals of time altogether… and the whole course of human history would inevitably change.

It is difficult to accept that any one of us could be that important. We are conditioned to think otherwise… we are, most of us, too small on the stage of history to play much of a part, or so we believe… and yet every one of us is a necessary link in the chain of human being as we know it. The smallest action of least of us can create a domino effect through countless lives and generations, and we have no way of knowing where the chain reaction might end or what it might ultimately inspire.

Does it serve any practical purpose to know that one of our descendants, generations into some unknown future, might find a cure for cancer or invent the device that will damn the world? Perhaps not… we cannot control the future to that extent. We can only help shape the possibilities that come within our reach. And that we can do.

We are not only essential links in the chain of existence, but we are, inevitably, each of us teachers too. The way we live our lives sets an unconscious example that may inspire others, or against which they will react and rebel. The way in which others react is out of our control… only our own choices and attitudes are within it, and most of those are our own reactions to or against the actions of others. It is a complicated web of interaction, and we are responsible for our own thread within it.

We may never know how our actions affect the lives of others. A simple smile may light up an otherwise dark day for a stranger in the street, a small kindness may alter a mood, every word we speak and every action we take may be an example for someone else. We do not need to know what effect our lives may have in the greater story of humanity, but we owe it to ourselves to walk in awareness of the infinite possibilities that surround us every day.

At the end of the funeral, everyone present had reached out to shake the hand of their neighbours, a simple human touch. Faces were solemn as we paid our final respects, but it was remarkable how many eyes smiled at each other, as each of us remembered our friend. It had been a silent celebration of a life well lived… one small thread in the story… but one which touched the heart and set an example of empathy and care that many will carry forward into our own lives.  “She shone, you know. There was just something about her…” said my son. Just by being herself, our friend changed the world. So can you.

The human cost #Remembrance

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred years ago, the Armistice came into effect and the guns fell silent after four years of horror. The Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, was over and the survivors of the conflict would be able to come home. In fact, we have known not one year of peace since that date.

No-one knows how many would never come home from the Great War. Between military and civilian deaths, it is estimated that over twenty-three million people died. World War Two, a generation later, would claim the lives of somewhere between seventy and eighty-five million people. Of those who survived, not all came home whole. None would return unchanged. Many lost limbs, sight, health and hearing. Many minds were overturned by horror.

“We were in the trenches. I was so cold I went out (and took shelter in a farm house). They took me to prison so I will have to go in front of the court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don’t worry.”

Private Abe Bevistein, aged 16, to his mother, just before he was executed by firing squad for deserting his post in WWI. He had been on the front line for a month when a grenade exploded next to him and he went to the rear to seek help. A medical officer said that he was fit to return to fighting, but he wandered off. Bevistein was one of 306 executed in this way, many of whom would today have been recognised as suffering from PTSD. Over eighty thousand were diagnosed with shell shock.

To speak in millions almost dehumanises the scale of the loss and grief. It is difficult to see individuals in such vast figures. To think in terms of the entire population of most countries still leaves it too impersonal. You have to look closer to home.

There are around sixteen thousand villages in England alone and only forty-one of them are ‘Thankful Villages’ who saw all their children return from the Great War. My village was not one of them. I live in a small, English village of around six hundred households. It is a rural village, surrounded by farm land, as peaceful a place as you could find. Many of the families who live here have done so for generations and many of those family names are inscribed on the village war memorial and in the Roll of Honour.

We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.”

Victor Silvester, later known as a bandleader and musician, lied about his age to join up in 1914. He said he was of age, but was only fourteen.  He was sent to Arras and, while he was there, was ordered to take part in five executions by firing squad. These executions haunted him for the rest of his life.

Although I come from a military family, I find no sense in war, in sending human beings to maim and slaughter each other in a vain attempt to fight out political and ideological differences that will only be resolved at the negotiating table. But that takes nothing away from my respect for those who serve their country when called. Individual acts of heroism, sacrifice and gallantry are not lessened by my opinion of war-mongers.  The lives of the men, women, children and animals who gave their lives, had them taken from them, or who waited, worked and grieved, deserve to be remembered. Every single one of them, regardless of which country called them to service.

In my search to humanise the unthinkable numbers of war, I looked up the names of those who died from my own birthplace. My roots are not here in the village, I am a city girl by birth, though where I was born, now a suburb, was once a village too. Like all villages and communities here, it has its own war memorial and today it bears the names of the seven hundred and forty-six local people who have fallen in conflicts from 1900 to 2011.

Even those numbers were too big, so I visited the war memorial in the village where I live to pay my respects and walked to the church to read the Roll of Honour. I know there is at least one stained glass window dedicated to a young man who died in the Great War, and the St George above the door was placed there by the brother of another lost soldier. Although the church is closed for repair, I found the village Roll of Honour online and read each name.

From this one small village, a hundred and seventy-nine men went to serve in the Great War. In a village of a mere few hundred households, that must have made a huge impact. Forty-six men were killed. Another fifty-nine were unable to return to work after the war. Many of the men who returned would see their own sons go to war just a few years later.

The youngest to die were teenagers. Thomas Biswell, for example, was only eighteen. He lived in the Rothschilds Cottages, just a few doors away from my home. His father was a gardener. Thomas was killed in action in 1917 and his name is carved on the Menin Gate in Belgium. Leonard Evans was just eighteen too. His parents, Gertrude and David, lived in the High Street. His father was a mechanical engineer. Leonard was killed in France in 1918.

William and Sophia Fowler lost at least two of their sons as well as two other members of the family. Their boys had grown up just around the corner, a few paces from my home. The eldest of the men who served were in their forties. Another fifteen died in WWII.

I will remember them, from the oldest to the youngest, in the hope that one day, the human race may mature enough to find another way.

“We did hear that they were fetching all back from France under 19. For goodness sake Horace tell them how old you are, I am sure they will send you back if they know you are only 16. You have seen quite enough now just chuck it up and try to get back. You won’t fare no worse for it. If you don’t do it now you will come back in bits and we want the whole of you.”

Extract from a letter from Florrie to her brother, Horace Iles. Horace was a big lad, and it is thought he had been given a white feather for cowardice in the street by someone who thought him old enough to fight. He  lied about his age and joined the Leeds Pals, a battalion formed of workmates and neighbours as part of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was just fourteen. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, after two years’ active service. The battle claimed the lives of 750 of the 900 Leeds Pals who were there. Horace never read Florrie’s letter. It was returned to her unopened, marked, ‘killed in action’.