Finding solace in a corner of a foreign field
Rest in peace: The War Cemetery at Salerno (all images courtesy of Celia Montague)
I have been spending a lot of time in Venice since 2010, and passing through the railway station one day last year I saw a train about to depart for a place called Salerno. Venice to Salerno by train. Suddenly a desire, an obligation long contemplated, seemed easy to fulfil. My uncle, Brian Sinclair, my mother’s elder brother, is buried there.
When she died in 2002 I discovered the exact location of his grave from her papers, which included a dented wartime forces issue chocolate tin containing letters to and from and about her brother. He had been studying engineering at Imperial College, London, when war was declared. He volunteered to join the Royal Engineers. After three years training, and lecturing, and rescuing people dead and alive from bombed buildings in England, he was posted to bomb disposal, which was what he had wanted to do.
Allied troops landed at Salerno, which is about 30 miles south of Naples, in September 1943. They were met with a ferocious German counter-attack. The invasion of Italy was principally intended to draw German troops from the fighting with Russia. In Salerno itself now, in 2015, there is practically nothing to remind one of this great human endeavour. All that I came across was a notice stamped in bold black paint on the arch of an entrance to a passageway, somewhere below the Duomo, which read “OUT OF BOUNDS”. As I was looking at this, an elderly Italian woman told me that it was from the Second World War, and intended to deflect Allied soldiers from the district where the prostitutes hung out.
Today’s town is a mixture of ancient, at one end of the vast bay, and modern towards the other: pretty down at heel, I thought, with globally identical youngsters dressed in cheap “cool” and preoccupied with their mobile phones and motor scooters. People are mostly warm and courteous. Everything is much cheaper than in Venice. Along the bay the old tramlines which once carried people the great distance from one end to the other survive under the shade of the palm trees, though here and there they are cemented over. The modern route is a hot, busy road which runs parallel, past decaying grand buildings, tacky shops and then, further out, high-rise hotels and blocks of modern flats. The thirtysomethings who run the bed and breakfast I stayed at had to Google the War Cemetery to find out its location. Some 1,900 young men, most of them British, are buried there.
I arrived in Salerno on September 16. On the 17th I went, accompanied by my husband, Stephen, to the War Cemetery about 15 miles out of town on the road to Pontecagnano. On the 18th we took the train back to Venice, and I wrote to myself and my two sons.
Well, let’s start with this: I will try never again to mourn the depredations of age. It is a privilege to have the possibility of reaching old age, a privilege which should command immense gratitude. A privilege to grow old in freedom which I owe to young men like my uncle, Lieutenant Brian Malcolm Macdonald Sinclair. I have been down to southern Italy from Venice to visit his grave in Salerno War Cemetery. I realised it would be painful, of course. It has been more of a shock than I expected.
On the train down I opened the tin containing letters between him and my grandmother, mother, grandfather, fellow officers and two of his girlfriends, one of whom he was obviously especially fond of. There is a photograph which I presume is of her: Pam. These letters are full of life and tenderness and humour, and paint in some of the circumstances of their years, 1940 to 1944. Some of Brian’s had little strips cut out like paper dolls where the censor had disapproved, making it impossible to tell exactly where they were coming from, or when.
Mummy’s are funny and loving; she had a gift for writing. Hers are the most strikingly written. Brian’s are gentle and tender. He was obviously close to both his mother and sister. It is a surprise to me that he confides in his mother about the existence of his girlfriends; not shy or secretive; they talk as friends. He does not want her to worry, so he heads off her worries with information. He has read, for example, a news report that 30 bombs have been dropped on a coastal town in the south-east, so he writes to say that Clacton-on-Sea, where he is at the time, was not the one. There is a sense of equality between him and his mother. He is a friend to her as well as a son. His love must have been a great emotional support for her after her divorce.
In either late December 1942 or at New Year 1943 he was sent to the Middle East. In January 1943 he slips into a letter that he hopes to visit Cairo, and in July 1943 confides that he is “heartily fed up with bloody Africa in general and this dive in particular”.
On August 2, 1943 my grandmother writes to him saying: “I’m so cheered up about this Italian debacle. [Mussolini had been toppled from power a week earlier.] It seems to bring the end of the war so much nearer — and we are beginning to talk of your being home again. Most people seem to think that next year will see it through and some are even more optimistic.”
And then in January 1944 she receives in the post the thunderbolt letter from the War Office, addressed as it happens to her ex-husband:
Sir, I am directed to inform you with an expression of deep regret that a report has been received from the Military Authorities in the Central Mediterranean that your son, Lieutenant B.M.M. Sinclair, Royal Engineers, died of wounds on the 8th January, 1944. I am to convey to you an expression of the Army Council’s sympathy. I am, Sir, Your obedient Servant.
This letter drove her so crazy with imagining that she made great efforts for clarification, resulting in a series of letters from the army, including two from the chaplain at 58th General Hospital who makes it clear that her son died instantaneously, and his body was, together with one other, unrecognisable. How dreadful a relief.
It is a terrible letter. It brings terrible news. It makes me cry. It makes my heart ache with grief for her and for him. And that is the feeling I have been living with for the last two days. I am on the train back to Venice. It was hard to be in Salerno, where I felt only homesickness, aching homesickness, which I believe was his relived in my own heart, and grief, knowing that he was here in his last days and here, or somewhere near here, when he died. It was hard to leave Salerno, for the same reasons. What remains of his poor body is buried in a site I now carry in my visual memory. To leave Salerno was to leave him there again.
And to leave was to leave behind, I expect, the intensity of awareness of him, the painful desire for England, the moments imagining him walking down this street or that, seeing the same expanse of bay as he saw, getting behind his eyes; to find relief, I hope, from this new grief which has time-travelled him into the present, or me into the past. It is like waking up after a sleep of many years to find someone precious has died.
A cold, leaden rectangle of death has been sitting in my chest since the morning of our visit to the cemetery. And a rush of anguish for my grandmother came with a rush of understanding. How could I have lived so long without imagining what she went through, without wondering how she bore it? What a gulf that was to cross. And yet we were great friends. She was so important to me. My heart bleeds for her now, and I weep when I think of her suffering.
And that cold rectangle speaks when I think of his ordeal in the terrible heat, the sleeplessness, the mosquitoes — the nature of the work he’d volunteered for — the fear and tension he must have lived with.
All he had to put up with: even to consider it makes one grow up and take a new perspective on life. Put up with things. Don’t complain. Be stoical. Think of oneself little. And at the same time, his endurance, his achievement, his sacrifice make me feel I am entitled, obliged even, not to hang back, to take my place at the table. He deserved that place. He fought for us all. He dignifies us. I will walk tall.
I love his face. It is a face of fine sensibility and gentleness, with lovely eyes. The touch of humour in those eyes in the photograph taken in the early years of the war, in a greatcoat, has been quelled in the later photograph taken perhaps in Africa, perhaps in Italy. In this photograph he is tanned, and there is a new, different kind of vulnerability. There is war in this photograph.
Lieutenant Brian Sinclair of the Royal Engineers: His war service was the antithesis of aggression, rescuing the injured and defusing bombs
I am back in Venice. It is cooler, comfortable. Yesterday at 2.30pm I put my feet in the warm, dirty Salerno sea. Walking back from the beach, the paving stones were too hot to stand on with bare feet. I picked up a stone from the sand: almost heart-shaped, but with a top curve broken off.
I wept again at a café with Stephen as we drank a cold beer, waiting for our train home. My heart was so full that at a word from him it poured over. The previous day when I tried to sign and write in the book of remembrance at the cemetery, my hand was shaking, and legibility was a great effort.
To reach the cemetery we had hired a “private” taxi arranged by a sweet-natured but unstoppably garrulous woman who looked after the B&B. He had agreed to pick us up at 9.30 and wait if we liked until 12 noon, when apparently the car was needed for the afternoon. The road we took, I realised, was the road the convoy of dead bodies would have taken to Pontecagnano. I imagined the rumble of the army lorries. My grandmother never visited Salerno. She had a nervous collapse in 1944, and for the rest of her life was unable to face the ordeal. Nor could my mother. They were wise, I now realise. This young man, by his absence, occupied a major space in my childhood imagination and does so to this day. That is why I came, now more than twice his age when he died, to see him.
The taxi driver had a kind and feeling face, and he did wait. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him cross himself at the gates of the cemetery, after he had opened the car door to let me out. Stephen had promised to leave me to myself, and dropped back, I think to look at the information framed at the perimeter, and the book of remembrance housed in a small, stone, shrine-like structure near the gate.
I had the address of the grave: Plot 3, Row D, Number 39. I had looked at the cemetery plan on the internet, and worked out exactly where he was. I made my way over to it. It was not his. The first grave in row D, approaching from the left side, was of “A Soldier of the Second World War”, and I suddenly worried that perhaps his grave was marked in this way and I wouldn’t know where he was. I walked my way along the row, and then came upon it near the other end. There was the reality. I was the first family member to see it in 71 years. An encounter. A sense of relationship, but a realisation of a gulf. There he is, among his comrades, six of whom were blown up by the same bomb, buried in the same row.
The simple tombstone seemed so cool compared with the warm, living being in the letters I had been reading. I tried to talk to him but felt I lacked status and felt silly and unqualified to speak. Those he loved are now dead. I pray they are with him and he with them. I needed say nothing on their behalf. In the end I wrote on a piece of paper and the gardener buried it for me in the earth just in front of the stone. Later I said the Lord’s Prayer. I said I would come back.
I opened the tin of letters to read again a hand-made menu booklet for Christmas 1943, inscribed for “Smiler Sinclair” on the front. Various comrades and two Italians, presumably a waiter and waitress, had signed on the pages inside. I wanted to see if any present at the Christmas table had died with him. I found two: Sergeant Evans and Sapper Rice. In all, seven graves for men who died on January 8, 1944, two weeks after that Christmas celebration: Brian, and his company who were working on the bomb that killed them.
How many bombs had they disarmed before this one got them? There must have been many. His war service seems to have been the antithesis of aggression. Disarming bombs in the theatre of war; rescuing injured people buried in the rubble of Sheffield before he was sent abroad. In January 1944 he was so close to, and yet so far from, the end of the war.
All along the rows of graves there are flowers and plants; yellow roses at intervals in Brian’s row. But the earth beside and in front of his gravestone was comparatively bare; only a scrubby little plant and a soft-leaved cactussy thing with a dead flower. A gardener was tending the flowers in Row C behind me, unfortunately close for comfort, but as he was so near I approached him and asked if it might be possible to plant something more there because it was bare compared with most of the rest of the bed. He said that he couldn’t, because all the planting was according to a scheme and organised by the English, and couldn’t be varied, out of respect. Of course. I understood. Later I was approached by another gardener, who seemed to be the first man’s superior. He said he understood I’d been speaking to his colleague, and explained again about the scheme. It had been so terribly hot, and it was impossible to prevent some plants dying, but every year the plants were moved along, so that what was in front of my uncle’s left hand neighbour would be in front of my uncle next year. I’m sure they don’t move the roses, but he was probably telling the truth about the other things.
He had a warm and simpatico face and manner. I told him about my uncle and what he had been doing and how he died. He pointed out two towers in the distance, and said that was where the troops had come over during the Salerno landings. He said his father had fought with the inglesi in the mountains in Calabria. If it’s true, he must have been a late baby. Though he was weather-beaten, I would have put him at 54 or 55 at most. But I was so glad to be told this. I took off my cotton glove, and he took off his gardening glove, and we shook hands.
I wandered up and down the line. Many stones had family inscriptions, unlike Brian’s. Many more other ranks than officers. One of the young officers was only 23, a Major in the Hampshire Regiment who must have died in the landings in September 1943. His father was a Major someone, and his parents’ inscription began “Our beloved only son”. It was a four-line inscription, and I wish I had written it down, but I think it ended: “Here below we struggle on, While he in glory shines.”
One of Brian Sinclair’s (censored) letters to his mother: He treated her as a friend, confiding in her about the existence of his girlfriends
Another grave, for another young soldier, bore a verse from his parents which said that he had served his earthly king, and his divine king had found need of him. Then a full stop, and the words. “Our son.”
At the entrance to the cemetery there is a great wide stone where you read: “Their name liveth for evermore.” It is a beautiful cemetery. It is immaculately kept, even if its once tranquil location is changed by a cement plant on one side and some other industrial activity on the other. It looks, for now at least, straight to the mountains. The purity and order of the white stones is a blazing statement. There is a great high, white, slender cross at the back in the centre, behind an expanse of perfect grass that separates the plots of white stones and gives a sense of space and honour and propriety. It seemed to me, thinking about it afterwards, that, indeed, to be buried in such a place does mean their name will live on, while we in our little country churchyards, or, more likely, our municipal crematoria, will sink into obscurity and oblivion. Let us hope so. The state may be fickle, but the army, as long as it exists, is loyal.
I photographed Brian’s headstone, and those of his two Christmas comrades, and the cemetery itself with the mountains beyond. I read the history which the War Graves Commission has erected at the perimeter, and the book of remembrance. Not long before, some Dutch people had written in it: “We will never forget.” I wrote: “Niece of Lt. Brian Sinclair. With gratitude, love, honour and always remembrance.”