A Prevailing Prejudice

This is my personal essay for my Higher English course. I didn't want to put it up before now in case someone at the SQA found it and thought I was plagiarizing myself. But now results are out, so here we go.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly...” 

            Our trip incorporated a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery. We entered through a small, wrought iron, almost fairytale-style side gate and were met immediately with a sea of white marble headstones. Each row of graves was graced with bright, red rosebushes, and the entire cemetery shone with the pristine whiteness of the marble. Large, white rotundas and altars were the main feature of the cemetery, majestic and bright in the sun. At Tyne Cot I could sense peace and tranquillity. Of course, it was still upsetting- incredibly so- but the beauty remained. For me, it felt like the men buried there were at peace, truly resting after their suffering. Their heroism in life had been commemorated in death. At Tyne Cot the entire cemetery seemed illuminated with an almost celestial glow. Though the sense of sadness was unquestionable, it felt calm and pure.

“Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen.

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

            We visited Langemark Cemetery. Given the numbers we knew to be buried there, the place was remarkably small. This, I surmised, was due to the fact that there was not a single individual grave. The majority of the cemetery was taken up with flat, black plaques set in the ground. No traditional upright headstones there. The closest resemblances were large, black cuboids which formed a square in the centre. Once again, they were mass tributes to the German soldiers whose bodies were never found or identified. Already, I felt choked and suffocated with emotion At the back of the cemetery there stood four statues. Instead of the expected celestial representations in gold and white, at Langemark we found the vague, black figures of four soldiers, weapons in hand. Perhaps they were intended to seem like protectors of their lost compatriots, or perhaps they were simply intended as a tribute to the German soldiers, but for me they were a sinister shadow of pain and loss. Langemark Cemetery was distressing; a place of torment. It did not feel like those men were resting, only that their suffering had been prolonged by the prejudices in life which had been taken beyond the grave. Even the small flowerbed managed to seem dreary, dark and depressed. To me, Langemark Cemetery was not a place of rest. The anguish and fear had not lessened with the years.

        I was forced to turn away in dismay from one particular girl who leaned against one of the upright memorials as though it were no more than the back wall of a shop on a Saturday night and proceeded to trivialise the fate of those soldiers. Perhaps the shock experienced at her shallow behaviour was a catalyst for my subsequent tears, but if I’m honest, I think they were inevitable. After leaving the cemetery, animated chatter resumed around me, but I remained quiet and contemplative.

        In many senses, I think people were more subdued and respectful at Tyne Cot. Initially, this struck me as odd- Tyne Cot had a far less distressing aura, so I expected any disrespect or simply even lack of knowledge and understanding to be enhanced. However, it occurred to me that perhaps it was the atmosphere of pain and anguish of Langemark which caused certain individuals to make throwaway comments: out of their own sheer discomfort. Perhaps subconsciously, we were aware that Tyne Cot- out of context only, of course- was a far more pleasant place to be. I believe that we were simply more at ease, though still, in my case, moved to tears for the soldiers who paid with their lives for a War started by a culmination of events which, individually, would have been far less consequential.

            The differences between the two cemeteries are starkly obvious: the gleaming white marble of Tyne Cot contrasted with the black stone of Langemark; Tyne Cot’s cared for and singularly sacred individual graves opposing Langemark’s painfully impersonal mass graves; the glowing aura of peace and heavenly rest of Tyne Cot and the dark, distressing and anguish-filled atmosphere of Langemark. Even their sizes are near opposites: Langemark is far smaller, however it has over double the number of bodies buried there. The reason for these inequalities is straightforward to figure out. Put simply, Germany, as the losing side in the War, was given a very small budget for building cemeteries in Belgium, while the triumphant countries- if such a word as “triumphant” can be genuinely applied in relation to such a tragedy- were given, comparatively, free reign.

The two poems which I quoted earlier do not directly relate to one another, nor to the respective cemeteries, but the atmosphere, the mood, is as exact as words can ever tell. The opening lines of “In Flanders Fields”, like Tyne Cot, are sad and emotional, undeniably, but for me, they hold a peaceful beauty. The bitterness and pain of “Dulce Et Decorum Est” epitomizes the atmosphere of the disadvantaged cemetery that was Langemark.

            Some people may think that I “should have cried more” at Tyne Cot Cemetery. My country, my people, my... side. I disagree heartily. At Langemark Cemetery, I grieved not only for the pointless loss of life, but for the inequality and injustice of what is left.

The prevailing prejudice after death galled me. Regardless of winning sides, of right and wrong, of race or of motive for fighting, the fact remains that all of those bodies were once living beings, individual entities, many of whom were young men who may well have been conscripted and may not have chosen to fight. Inequalities have no place in death. Regardless of anything else, all of those men deserve equal peace, rest and treatment in death. It will, I believe, always remain with me: the emotion, the experience, and most harshly, the prevailing prejudice for which there is no place.

The End

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