Five miles from Ypres, in a quiet courtyard in the village of Poperinge, stands a pole of the sort used to support the twining vines of hops, a common local crop. It is about the height of a man. Just behind it is a steel plaque engraved with a verse from Kipling’s ‘Coward’: “I could not look on death, which being known, men led me to him, blindfold and alone.”
It doesn’t look much, especially when you compare it to the vast memorials of the Menin Gate and Thiepval, and I suppose seeing as it as a memorial to those men who were executed by their comrades for refusing to continue the fight – deserters as they are commonly called – it is understandable. The whole business of deserters goes against the glorified image of the Great War, of men linking arms and taking the fight to the enemy, no matter what the hardship. No, this is not something the authorities then (and to some extent, now) want many people to remember, it is perhaps a dirty piece of history they would rather wash their hands of.
The thing is, these people (Over 300 British soldiers were executed for cowedice/desertion) were human too. Fathers, sons, brothers, lovers…normal people who just reached the end of their tether in an environment so extreme that is impossible to imagine what it was like for them. They were not born soldiers, they were accountants, farmers, mill workers, shoesmiths…normal people going about their normal business until the whole of Europe went completely mental in 1914. Then they were ordered to kill people they had no real gripe with – just because the politicians and the C-in-C said they had to.
Can we really blame them for wanting out?
My point is, these soldiers should not be forgotten, they should not be treated any differently than those people who were killed in action, died of wounds, got taken prisoner or survived the whole show. So it is nice to see the Flanders Museum, located in the Cloth Hall at Ypres, now has a dedicated section to these soldiers…
I suppose it’s better late than never.