I contemplate phony Stalin quotes, my facial muscles, and the unfathomable value of individual lives.
Last summer, I did a FURSCA project that was centered on the First World War and, as part of that project, I did a significant amount of research on the 1st Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment. The North Staffordshires didn’t end up in any really famous attacks, so there’s not a ton of information about them on-line. Thus, I had to trace them here and there through various accounts of different battles, gas attacks, and anywhere else that might offer a clue of what they had been up to over the period that I was writing about. Finding a reference to the North Staffordshires always felt like seeing a friend in the middle of a crowd: “Hey…I know you!” Then, in all three of the presentations that I’ve given on the novella that came out of the project (including a pretty big one in Kentucky), my major laugh-line was showing a picture of the North Staffordshires’ regimental insignia and pointing out that it looks like a pretzel (thank you, thank you, I’m here till Monday). In short, the North Staffordshires’ are pretty special to me.
Because of all this, the past two days have been a bit of a “Where’s the North Staffordshires?” for me. I didn’t have any luck yesterday; the closest I got was seeing a few South Staffordshire graves (they also have a rope-knot-that-is-definitely-a-pretzle as part of their insignia). Today, however, was different. I found the names of the missing North Staffordshire men on the Thiepval Memorial for the Missing of the Somme and found a regimental cap clip in a museum gift shop AND didn’t squeal like a small child when I saw it. It was all tremendously exciting.
I also found several North Staffordshire graves in one of the cemeteries that we visited on the Somme. The 1st Battalion, the only members of the regiment that I’d followed, fought at Delville Wood (we haven’t been there yet) and I didn’t know where or if any of the other battalions had been on the Somme. So finding the graves was a complete surprise: “Hey! I KNOW you!”
There were five graves from the regiment. One of them was for a Second Lieutenant Bolton—I’m assuming he was a LOT nicer than the Boltons from Game of Thrones. Both of my main characters were second lieutenants in the North Staffordshires, too, so I asked someone to take my picture with the headstone. I crouched down next to the grave, put my hand on the stone like it was the shoulder of the friend I’d just seen in a crowd, and started to smile. I should point out that, usually, when I take pictures, I get this sort of “My smile is attacking my face. Send help.” look. Somehow, that didn’t seem appropriate for this photo.
Excessive joy was out, but what expression would be acceptable in a photo taken while you’re crouched over the body of (or at least, given that graves on First World War battlefields were usually built hastily and later shelled, the final memorial to) a young man who died within a few hundred yards of this exact spot?
I had no clue. But while I could have been selecting a facial expression, I was busy realizing that I also had no clue who Second Lieutenant Bolton of the North Staffordshires was. He could have been ridiculously shy and quiet. He could have been a horrible, mean person. He could have been the guy that made everybody else laugh. He could have been a wanna-be author or an equestrian or a violin player or a rugby fanatic. He could have had double-jointed thumbs or dimples or gap-teeth or a weirdly shaped birthmark. He could have been the most forgettable person in the world. But he was an individual. He had hopes and dreams and a whole universe of ideas churning around inside his head. And I would bet that he did not want to die in an ill planned attack that was the very definition of futility. But he did. And he’s buried in the middle of the northern French countryside in a tiny little cemetery with about 100 other men, right next to a road that goes past dozens of other identical cemeteries. And here I was, sitting on his grave and about to start grinning manically for the camera. I couldn’t do it.
As you saw, in the resulting pictures, my face is weird and uncomfortable mix of happiness, worry, and confusion. But I wasn’t doing The Grin, so that’s something. Besides, there’s something a lot bigger. Thought out the trip, I’ve been trying to remember that the breathtaking countryside we’re driving through, the restaurants we’re eating amazing food in, and the adorable hotel we’re staying at are all places where hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives. But I just can’t get my head around the scope of it all. Then, there was Second Lieutenant G.B. Bolton of my favorite North Staffordshires. One subaltern. Dead. Right here. 18th November. Ninety-eight years ago. That’s all.
There’s a quote that a high school history teacher of mine had on his wall that’s always stuck with me (it’s supposed to be from Stalin, but apparently there’s no record of him actually saying it): “One death is a tragedy, a million death’s is a statistic.” It’s horribly true, especially here, when we’re surrounded by one of the bloodiest battlefields in human history.
But for me, sitting on that grave, I don’t think the quote is quite accurate. The tragedy would have been grinning and hurrying to the next North Staffordshire grave and the next and the next then jumping in the car and heading off to the next memorial without sparing a thought for this one individual. I’ll probably never know anything about him, but that’s ok. I know he lived. I know he dreamed and feared and loved and hated and laughed and cried and had a favorite food and a deepest secret. I know he was human.
And guess what? One could say the exact same for every man in that cemetery. For every man in every cemetery we’ve been to. Every name of the missing on Thiepval Memorial. Every name and grave of an unknown we’re going to see for the rest of the trip. Every single one. Who cares if it was just by chance that I found his grave and wanted to take a picture with it and had a massively long internal monologue about how I should look in the picture? For me, G. B. Bolton was the one death that turned a single little statistic into a million impossibly huge tragedies.
So rest in peace, Second Lieutenant Bolton. And all the dead of the North Staffordshires and the Somme and the Great War.
One of the cemeteries we’ve been seeing—in case you were thinking I was a monster for not being able to see each grave as a representations of an individual tragedy.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The white parts of the columns are covered in names.
The names of the missing from North Staffordshires at Thiepval.
The Grin and the coolest souvenir in the world.