Our visit to France was incredible. I have here a couple of fragments of footage, and a few photographs, but really only a book would do this trip justice.
We discovered the amazing work that the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German War Graves Commission, does. The reason for the “Volksbund” is because when Germany was defeated, it was bankrupt, and it was people – Farmers, Priests, Rabbis, old ladies – who helped to bury and record the vast numbers of dead. The Volksbund have been operating through donations from relatives and descendants, and volunteers for the vast majority of their existence and it was only very recently they started to have some government help. They are still kept going by amazing volunteers, one of whom gave me his baseball cap with their “Peace” logo on it.
We also met the young people who are involved so closely with the Volksbund. In fact, within a short time after our arrival at Luxembourg Airport we were whisked along motorways and then into remote French forests which had the unmistakable whiff of the First World War – something about the nature of the terrain, the eerie feel of the place – and in the depths of one of the forests, a campfire where these Scouts were playing guitars and singing old old songs. They were girls and boys and they were called Pfadfinder. Matt immediately blended his guitar with theirs, and I did my best to sing along to their songs. Then we performed “Tipperary”, and then it was nearly 2am but Arne, the incredible man who organises the events that the Volksbund puts on, was telling the children, who looked to be from about 8 to 15 years of age, the many stories of the ongoing discoveries of the Volksbund. Very near the place we were sitting, in the forest of Caures, the remains of Hans Winkelmann were found and identified, and the day after that, we would be burying him beside his beloved brother Karl. That was the big event we were to perform at.
Here is a fragment of footage from it. I apologise that there is no more than this:
But before that, the NEXT day, was something very close to our hearts. We had found an old piece of music, a heart-rending song, scribbled down in a trench in Verdun by the composer Ernst Brockmann. I won’t tell the story again, because at least two past blog posts on this website tell it already. But it was the next day that we were to honour him.
It was damp and the clay round his grave, of course, fresh from the recent exhumation. The Pfadfinder youths, some Reservists from around Brockmann’s area of North Rhine-Westphalia (incidentally, where I finally found the book with his song in it) who had seen active service, and of course Arne, and Maurice, the Media-man for the Volksbund, all stood in a circle round his cross, which still says “Unbekkanter Deutscher Soldat” and one of the Pfadfinder girls read out his dates and the biography they’d managed to find, and looped a copy of the song around the cross, along with a small German flag. We then performed his song for him, after 100 years of his lying there, unnamed. It was so deeply happy an outcome, at last, that I didn’t feel tears. Not until the Pfadfinder brought out their guitars and sang a regimental song of the 39th Fusiliers, which was so full of hope and youth, and in the setting of all those crosses, truly devastating. No words for it.
This is why youth are so closely involved with the Volksbund. This is about past and present and future.
We hope we can get some donations for a stone cross with Ernst Brockmann’s name on it.
After the big ceremony the next day, we had a look at the cemetery where Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande were to meet the next day, overlooking the view of where so much blood poured out a hundred years ago, and had a final, quiet and rather melancholy visit to Brockmann, warm rain falling, so very alone in that hillside cemetery. We flew back to Heathrow, drove through the night to North Yorkshire, arrived at 2am, and did the cylinder-making demonstration for the Swaledale Festival the following day. We sold one CD and one cylinder. A devastating commentary on the relevance of the CD!
It’s too small to tell in this photo, but we each wore our VDK forget-me-not pin.