There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 5 October 2012

Commemorating the Dead: Tsunami, Earthquake and War

Following on from the (surprisingly?) popular Favourite Gravestones post, I am progressing from  memorials for one person or family, to memorials for lots of people.

This is not about the major memorials - every country has its cenotaph or eternal flame (those in Moscow and Sarajevo feature in this blog) - but about the smaller memorials we have come across by accident, or gone to some lengths to seek out.

Boxing Day Tsunami Memorial, Tharamgambadi (Tranquebar) Tamil Nadu, India

On the 20th of February 2009 we drove from Pondicherry, down the coast of Tamil Nadu to Tranquebar.

The Danish admiral Ove Gjede had been there before us (in 1620) and he built Fort Dansborg.

Fort Dansborg from the balcony of The Bungalow on the Beach
Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu
Tranquebar remained in Danish hands until 1845 when it was sold to the British along with all the other Danish possessions in India (hands up those who knew there were any).

In the afternoon we strolled  through the small town...

Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu
...and came across this obelisk.

Tsunami Memorial, Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu
At first we did not realise what it was. There is much writing around the base, gold against the black stone, but Tamil is one of the many languages we do not speak - and it is written in one of the many alphabets we cannot read. It appeared to be a list of names, some 250 we estimated, such as you might see on a war memorial, but we could think of no war that could have wreaked such devastation on this small town. Then we noticed the one thing we could read. It was a date, 26/12/2004, the date of the Boxing Day Tsunami.  Of course we should have realised straight away, but somehow it had not entered our heads.

Our hotel, The Bungalow on the Beach, had once been the residence of the Governor of Danish India. Many years later, and after two years of extensive restoration it opened as a hotel on Christmas Day 2004, which was not an auspicious day to open a hotel on that particular beach.

The Bungalow on the Beach
Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu
Hotels can be repaired, and it opened again three months later. It is important to remember those whose lives could not be so easily put back together after the events of Sunday the 26th of December 2004.

The Spitak Earthquake Kachkar, Vanadzor, Armenia

On December the 7th 1988 a major earthquake struck northern Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. Its epicentre was near the small town of Spitak. Between 25 and 50 000 people died in Spitak and the larger cities on either side, Leninakan (now called Gyumri) and Kirovakan (now Vanadzor).

The break up of the Soviet Union had a dire effect on both the Armenian economy and the earthquake rebuilding programme. When we visited in 2003 it was still easy to find earthquake damage in Gyumri.

Earthquake damaged church, Gyumri
Kachkars (literally 'Cross Stones') are rectangular stones carved with crosses and other floral and decorative motifs. Carving kachkars is a peculiarly Armenian craft and they have been doing it since the 9th century, at least. Every church and monastery has its collection of medieval kachkars and Armenian independence has now brought about a resurgence in the craft.

It seems appropriate that the victims of the earthquake should be commemorated by a kachkar. This simple, understated but very effective memorial sits in the churchyard in Vanadzor where many of the victims are buried.

Earthquake Memorial Kachkar
Vanadzor Church

38th (Welsh Division) Memorial, Mametz Wood, France

Tsunamis and earthquakes are beyond human control. Wars are not. We should be able to avoid them, but apparently that is beyond the wit of humankind. Perhaps one disincentive to starting new wars is to remember the horror of those that have gone before.

No war killed more British and Commonwealth servicemen than the First World War. It is hardly surprising that there are memorials the whole length of the Western front. The major memorials on the British sector, The Menin Gate in Ypres, the soaring Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge and the huge Anglo-French Memorial on the Somme at Thiepval are well known. Less well known, and a little harder to find, is the memorial to the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood.

The Memorial can be reached by driving a couple of kilometres down a single track road off the Mametz-Contalmaison road, hardly a major highway itself.  It stands beside a small quarry where the metalled road gives out.

38th (Welsh Division) Memorial, Mametz Wood
Between in the 7th and 12th of July 1917, as a part of the Battle of the Somme, the Welsh Division attacked across the open ground in front of the dragon and took the wood beyond against fierce opposition. The division lost 5000 men killed or wounded. The 14th Battalion started with almost 700 men and finished with 276, others fared little better.

38th (Welsh Division) Memorial, Mametz Wood
There has been a memorial in Mametz church since the 1920s, but this memorial, the work of Welsh sculptor David Petersen, was erected only in the late 1980s at the request of the last surviving veterans.

Beside the narrow road poppies grow among the brassicas.

Poppies, Mametz Wood

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