a greek tragedy
I find it strange how a memory can stay with you for years after visiting a particular place, and how feelings experienced at that time remain clearly etched in your mind for the rest of your days. It is the infinite variety of life. More often than not, if it’s a particularly strong event that you witness or are a part of, it then goes on to colour the way you see life and permeates your opinions and how you react to people and happenings. These are life changing occurrences people! You must know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it was the passing of a loved one; a disaster televised as it happened; an outstanding act of courage or perhaps even a small act of kindness easily done by the giver and overwhelmingly needed by the receiver. Whatever it is, it makes an indelible mark on your soul and you can never lose it, good or bad.
It is a memory like these that I’m thinking of, although I have to warn you, it is not an easy one. For some reason, I cannot shake it off. When I’m least expecting it, it creeps into my mind and hits me without warning WHAM! Why is that? Why can’t I leave it behind? I have to say, dear reader that this occasion reminds me of the total disregard that many people in our war-torn world have for human life. It also brings home to me how greedy, manipulating and savage we as a human race are. Sorry, but there it is, and I feel I really must share it with you.
I have mentioned in the past my love of the Second World War but I must stress that it is usually a love of the revolutionary machinery that they used. In this vein, I suppose I could add that at least the aircraft and land-based vehicles is an example of human beings at their best: what ingenuity we are capable of. Pity it has to be at such great human cost.
Those who know me well will be left in no doubt about my love for Greece. I have not told you about it here yet, but let me say now, I think it is nothing short of paradise. Every time I go, I feel the years peel away from my skin and the weight of my troubles slowly vaporise from my shoulders. The minute I land, I take in a deep breath and breathe out all the stress and tension of the British Rat Race. What is it about the Sun that literally warms your heart and metaphorically lifts the soul? The first time I went with my wife, it was to Crete, the largest and most populated of the Greek islands. On this particular holiday we were staying on the south coast at a gorgeous resort called Rethymno. I have to say, as much as I love Greece, they haven’t always preserved their amazing ancient architecture too well, and it’s often a shame to see the crumbling remains of what was once, quite obviously, amazing. However, this is not the case in beautiful Rethymno. Here, they have possibly the best preserved ancient town centres I’ve ever seen there.
One day we decided to take a trip to Chania, the second largest town on Crete, where we had been told that there were allied war graves at the British Commonwealth War Cemetery, at a place called Souda Bay.
Those of you who are familiar with Second World War history will know that Crete saw some of the bloodiest hand to hand fighting of the war. In the battle which raged as allied forces desperately tried to combat the German advance for control of Crete, a total of three cruisers, six destroyers, and several other smaller vessels were tragically lost, not to mention the dozens of crafts which were damaged, before the island eventually capitulated to repeated swarms of German paratroopers. For all sorts of reasons, from a keen interest in this history and in search of soulful serenity, it was a blisteringly hot day when we went to the main bus station and boarded a bus that had Chania on the front of it, hoping to be taken into the centre of the town.
We were already wilting from the oppressive heat by the time we arrived to Chania and with dismay learned that the cemetery was still a few miles away. After purchasing a large bunch of green grapes and a couple bottles of water, we negotiated with a taxi driver to take us the remainder of our quest.
During the short drive, I stared out of the window to the dry, brown land flitting past me; my mouth felt even more parched and I found it hard to swallow. The scenery was like many other parts of sun-drenched Crete but when we pulled up outside the cemetery gates we could see that beyond them the contrast was startling. Lush green lay everywhere adorned with dazzling flowers sprawled out making the whole scene reminiscent of an English bowling green. I was immediately overwhelmed simply by the atmosphere of peace which exuded from the very earth; on three sides the cemetery was quietly shaded by trees and bushes with the vast sea beyond.
The taxi driver was asked to wait for us, and considering how hot it was, I gave him half of our grapes to sweeten the deal.
We entered the cemetery by a pathway that passed through a small chapel built in remembrance of the fallen. We signed the visitors’ book and read through the countless pages of comments from surviving kin who had visited previously. Their comments were so moving that I could feel myself welling up before I’d even got in, and I couldn’t think of anything worthy to write. Reading through the large tome indicating the names and location of the individual graves, I was surprised by the seemingly lack of sailors considering the port’s naval losses but there were enough airmen and infantry from all over the allied world to bring a tear to the eye. The figures themselves were crushing and I felt my lungs gasping for air as I tried to take them in. Over one thousand, five hundred people were buried within, and the saddest part was that they had mostly all died in the eleven days of May 1941 when the allied forces lost control of Crete to Germany.
Nothing prepared me however, as we walked through into the actual cemetery, for the sight that met my eyes.
There were hundreds and hundreds of small, white headstones all set out uniformly in neat rows. Someone was quite evidently devoting time to caring for them all, so that they trooped neatly across the Bowling Green lawn. Again, the peace engulfed me as we began our pilgrimage.
We walked along the rows of graves which had been laid out according to the nationality of the soldiers. There were English, Welsh, Scottish, New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians and so on as if they were lying side by side in a long-forgotten mute international congress. As we walked around in the eerie silence, it was hard not to notice the ages of the fallen soldiers: twenty years old, nineteen years old, eighteen and even seventeen years of age repeated with disturbing regularity. Often, the sentry stones were inscribed with heart-rending epitaphs from loved ones left behind all over the world and I wondered how many had even managed to make the long journey to see their sad final testaments. After wandering through the white stony forest, we walked to the back of the tranquil garden of remembrance and sat on a wall that divided the green grass from the narrow beach and sea.
So many lost lives; so many defeated hopes and extinguished dreams. I couldn’t help but despair at the waste of it all. Due to the nature of war, not all bodies were identified; this will be of no surprise to you. However, in the case of this cemetery, the land had been gifted by Greece, and the graves had been plotted after the remains had been brought from other post-war graves previously made by the Germans. For this reason, many graves were unnamed, or had inscribed upon them ‘buried near this spot’ or ‘believed to be’. This uncertainty over a final resting place for so many dutiful human beings suddenly made me angry. Not at the authorities in this case, but at our entire race.
I tried to keep my conflicting emotions in check. I was torn between the feelings of peace surrounding the graves, as if those connected to it had long since forgiven, albeit not forgotten the wrongs done to them. I tried in vain to feel as they felt.
As I gazed at the graves, I was hugely aware of the energy contained within the silence. It’s not that I believe in any way that the bodies buried there had lingering, ghostly souls attached to them but rather that the loving thoughts and emotions of the families and loved ones some how are concentrated forevermore in that place.
In any case, the feeling within the boundary of those walls was simply electric and I was desperately battling against the rage rising up inside me at the thought of all those young men savagely cut down in their prime. It demonstrated to me the lack of respect for human life. These young men gave up their lives and were left buried under foreign soil and for what? A blasted eternity underneath the blistering sun.
I took a deep breath and began the process of re-focusing my mind. If the energies which I could feel around me could now exude peace, then I had to find it within myself to do the same. To say it was an emotional experience, is to say the very least.
We walked around for about an hour just soaking up the atmosphere but finally showed mercy to the taxi driver who was still patiently waiting for us, grapes long since devoured, and headed back towards town.
For thousands of years men have fought and died in distant lands to protect what they see as right and in religious terms to spread what they believe to be the truth. Vikings struggled to cross the North Sea in primitive long boats, not only to rape and pillage but to set up their own communities around the east coast of Scotland and England. The Romans, marching all over Europe and conquering in the name of Rome, crushed whoever stood in their way. The English, long before pulverising the French at Agincourt, sent crusades to force their Christian beliefs on the Islamic Moors. Even Crete itself has seen its fair share of invasions based on different credences. These are but a few examples. I have long held the notion that fanaticism in the name of religion is at the core of all human conflict and I think there must be an inherent flaw in our psyche that lets us simply lie down while despots rule and control the masses for their own end.
And so it goes on: wars mostly being fought in the name of religion on nearly every continent in the world. It is then, when I experience the vivid memories of that war cemetery in Greece that the end result of war is brought rudely home to me. I just have to picture the rows upon rows of white headstones to realise that the whole concept of war seems so futile and such a waste of precious life. Apparently there is a German cemetery in the same area but it lies derelict and uncared for and surely this too is a crime in its own way. It reminds me of the lyrics to that ever so mournful lament ‘Green Fields of France’:
…The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man…
But what I mostly would like to leave you with is this: as extreme as our capacity for death and destruction is, so too is our infinite capacity to forgive, rebuild and re-love. Thus I was shown at Souda Bay.
A Greek Tragedy Video
If you ever find yourself on the island of Crete I would recommend a visit to the British Commonwealth War Cemetery; put it on the top of your list of places to see. It is well worth the grapes.