I remember as a young soldier in September 1944 hearing of the paratroopers landing at Arnhem and how hard they fought for that bloodied piece of country. When I was in Holland recently I took the opportunity to see for myself this place of a bridge too far.
I left my hotel at the village of Lage Vuursche on a morning when the sun shone like that in an African spring. The flat fields of rye grass had herds of Holstein cattle strung out like beads of black and white pearls in the dark green pastures. There was the scent too of rich black soil that tractors turned for winter crops. Magpies, gulls and lapwings followed the plough and fought for the exposed grubs.
I passed villages and towns where houses sparkled in neat rows and tiny gardens were still ablaze with flowers. The main roads had adjoining “fietspads” and people from six to eighty were on bicycles. The Hollanders must be one of the fittest nations in the world. It was good to be in a place where people still counted and the motor car was not king.
I stopped at Oostebeek, one of the important British Army cemeteries of this area. An avenue of rhododendrons, their buds just closed, bordered a pebble path leading to the entrance. Inside the gate was one of the most lovely and well cared for war cemeteries I have ever seen. Autumn was already here, but striking red and yellow roses were blooming, some falling in profusion over the long silent rows of white gravestones.
I wandered slowly down the lines, looking at the names of those who had fallen, their ages and their regiments. The Green Howards, the Highland Light Infantry, the Royal Artillery and grave upon grave of the parachute regiment. Men from 19 to 29.
Inscriptions from mothers, fathers, wives and children cried out in words cut into the stone. A mother wrote: “Forever, in my memory you’ll remain. My heart is broken.” A wife had engraved: “He leaves a gathered radiance, a width, a shining place under the night.”
I walked on, knowing that among the graves of paratroopers there would be an inscription that summed up the spirit of those red bereted men who so courageously hung on to impossible positions against a foe of equal determination and courage.
I found it on the grave of Lieutenant Clarkson who fell on September 22, 1944, aged 22 years. It was an epitaph for all of the paratroopers: “Go tell the Spartans that we lie here obeying their words.” A connecting and deeply symbolic link between that small group of men who held the pass at Thermopylae and this generation who tried to wrest what was then a little known bridge at a town called Arnhem.
I heard the song of a blackbird in the rhododendrons and in the high oaks above me there was the clatter of pigeon wings and the whistle of a thrush. Life does not stop for a rest. It goes on and takes us with it. But I wished that all those who wanted to wage war could walk here and read the inscriptions and see the damage that goes beyond the grave.
In a special corner of the cemetery there are the graves of the Polish forces. The nation we went to war for but it still struggles for freedom. A Mirage jet from a nearby NATO airfield screamed overhead, shattering the silence. In a distant field I saw the khaki figures of young Dutch national servicemen on parade. I wondered what those who lay here dead in this lovely cemetery of Oostebeek would wish? Surely, they would cry out for peace.