Every year just for a moment, the world spins a little slower. Sadly however, every year there are fewer souls who even notice.
The last of the ‘old guard’ is passing on, and a ‘new guard’ both in and out of uniform must carry their torch. For many, there’s a dis-connect to the meaning of Remembrance Day. It’s a national holiday. A day off school. A long weekend. A time when broadcasters re-run old war movies that are about as far removed from the real thing as Hollywood can imagine. But take the time to visit a memorial grave site, and the significance of Remembrance Day is laid in acres at your feet.
Most sites are set amidst beautiful landscapes. In Arlington grave stones cascade with military precision down the gentle sides of verdant hills. Grass is manicured to perfection. The scene solicits quiet reverence. In Normandy, crosses stretch across fields of equally well tended grass, beyond which lie the grey swells of the English Channel. Poppies grow in clusters along the shoreline like blood-stained memories. Yet bright with hope.
Visit El Alamein, however, and there is no such grace.
Located 65 miles west of Alexandria, the memorial sites here are starkly harsh. White markers stand in sands bleached beneath a merciless sun. The desert vistas stretch for miles in every direction. To the west they travel into Libya’s Western Desert, and to the north they dissolve into the soft, blue Mediterranean Sea. Yet as inviting as the waters are, the hard, compressed beaches are seemingly barren. No cabanas. Not even a sunbather. And little wonder. In 1942, these sands were called the Devil’s Garden, so named for the legion of landmines placed beneath their surface, many of which still remain today.
Across this flat desert even the mildest breeze whips parched, fine granules into your hair. Your eyes. Your nose. Burning your cheeks and chafing into the creases of your clothes. Frequently, sandstorms lash up against the crosses as if every choking particle is at battle again. There’s a searing tangibility here that cannot help but evoke the heat of desert combat.
During World War II, to control El Alamein, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean was to win dominance over the whole of North Africa. The fighting was as unforgiving as the landscape and when the final attack started, it involved over 800 artillery guns firing at the German lines. Legend has it that the noise was so great that the ears of the gunners bled. Over 80,000 soldiers were either wounded or lost their lives around El Alamein; hence it is now home to three cemeteries — German, Italian and the Allied Forces. The latter is made up predominantly of British (the Desert Rats), Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians who are said to have fought so hard that even Rommel, the brilliant German commander known as The Desert Fox, commented on the ‘rivers of blood’ they created. But it was through that blood that came one of the most decisive turning points of the War, won at a time when morale was at its lowest and Winston Churchill’s leadership was facing a vote of non confidence.
Today, El Alamein is still an unremarkable town although what it represents makes the pilgrimage there far from ordinary. There’s a museum where a young Egyptian parrots off memorized texts (in English) as he uses a pointer on a table board to illustrate the flow of battle. And outside are swallows – the Allied code-word for Sherman tanks and other beige-coated desert artillery. It’s not until you walk the non-descript rows do you begin to understand the tenacity of those who lay before you. The youth: sons barely of school leaving age. The waste: rows of unfulfilled promises. And the bravery. Sometimes, if two airmen died in the same aircraft, the markers are poignantly joined. And as the overhead sun scorches shadows of every marker into the sand, it’s as if every grave is saluting those who were never found. Choose to feel the forgotten solitude of El Alamein, and perhaps your world might even spin slower, if only for a moment, in remembrance.