Human Flower Project

The American Cemetery

At the American Cemetery, a memorial to the WW II U.S. servicemen stationed in England, John Levett tries to discern the people from among the dead. 


The American Cemetery, Madingley, England: a memorial to the more than 5000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Britain who died in battles preceding and following June 6th 1944.

Essay and photos by John Levett

Madingley is a small village on the outskirts of Cambridge. Nothing much to speak of—a hall of the gentry, a decent restaurant, a school house. Go there on a dark, dank day and it presents itself as a location from a John Wyndham novel. Go there in sun in Summer and you could feel yourself back in the ‘50s, the English ‘50s of faded entitlement. Go back in Winter and convince youself you caught sight of Peter Quint at a cottage window.

I pass through Madingley frequently. It’s the way out or the way back for numerous bike rides. It’s also the turning point for the one hour exercise rides that I do during the Winter: just long enough to stretch the heart and lungs, just short enough to arrive back home before frostbite sets in. In Summer it’s a picnic spot along the footpaths that cross the fields towards Girton. The mill doesn’t grind anymore; I have no idea how many in England still do.


imageI go out that way in Spring to order mulch & potting compost. Decades ago my mum and I went out to the woods around Hitchin and raked up leaf mould taking home a van load for back and front gardens each year. I still believe there’s nothing as good as leaf mould for maintaining soil. These days I buy a cubic metre of composted manure. It serves insects & birds in turn.

Usually at this time of year I’ll be in the garden, thirty minutes or an hour at a time, clearing up, turning over soil, snipping off diseased wood and generally making busy. This year Winter arrived early and temperatures have dipped seriously and I’ve taken the easy way out. How pathetic! I convince myself that I was already ahead of the game. Service will resume before long. I need to carve out space. The delphinium garden begins next year and come Spring I’m having another shot (the twentieth?) at raising some smart alpines (or at least something that would pass for alpines).

One of the blessings of the biting cold that we’ve had has been the crisp skies and sun on dying leaves. Walking’s better than sport cycling on these days—it’s no fun mending a puncture with hands that can’t grip. The round tour of Madingley from where I live takes about three hours walking on fun days. On days like these I take my hack bike out and park at the Cavendish lab which is half way there.

imageEarlier this week I took the walk to the American Cemetery. It was built in the mid-‘50s on ground that was given by the university. It contains the remains and the names of those Americans stationed in Britain who died in the the air and ground battles preceding and following June 6th 1944. Over five thousand are memorialised here. I’ve never recorded a woman’s name.

I’ve never been one to hang around in cemetaries but I walk through the American Cemetary every few years in different seasons and always with mixed feelings. I’m always taken by the complete impersonality of the place. To me it’s a recording & no more. There’s no aging, no decrepitude, no passing away of the memorial, no difference in death, no personalization, nothing left, nothing draped, nothing to feel.

Nothing to feel is wrong. Everything being uniform one looks for the recognizable—died on June 6th. 1944, died on my birthday, died near the war’s end. If you knew the battle history you’d know those who died in the Ardennes, those at Anzio, those on the Normandy beachhead. Then you start speculating—did he even get off the landing craft, ever set foot on French soil, ever fly a mission knowing there would be no return. There are no home towns on the memorials only states; so you find yourself putting biographies to the Idaho farmer’s boy; the New Jersey band leader; the Maine fisherman. It’s not difficult to do.

imageI’ve recently been reading the poetry of Karl Shapiro. He had been drafted into the peacetime US Army and after battle began was shipped out with the Medical Corps to New Guinea. I took his collected poems with me on my walk. In ‘Troop Train’ he wrote:

It stops the town we come through. Workers raise

Their oily arms in good salute and grin.

Kids scream as at a circus. Business men

Glance hopefully and go their measured way.

And women standing at their dumstruck door

More slowly wave and seem to warn us back,

As if a tear blinding the course of war

Might once dissolve our iron in their sweet wish.

Such words enhance the narrative that I carry with me as I uselessly attempt some sense of these deaths that the dead never wanted. This war has always been The Good War; the necessary war; the war about which there could be no equivocation. One reflects on the equivocation that went though these dead—why me, why now, what for.

In ‘Sunday: New Guinea’:

… I long for our disheveled Sundays home,

Breakfast, the comics, news of latest crimes,

Talk without reference, and palindromes,

Sleep and the Philharmonic and the ponderous Times.

The incidentals and the throwaways of a life lived by the day that come to the dead at the time of death.

There’s still ice on the pavements and the wind penetrates; the sharp light and the sodden leaves make this a bleak place this day. Yet people have come. Curiosity for some and an afternoon walk for others. It’s the way of war graves and cenotaphs that they lack aspects of affection and it’s commemorations that try to add it. There are dead buried here whom none now living will remember and walking the paths and stopping and adding an imaginative tale to a name seems a worthwhile way of using a moment. A way of making mass death personal, like lighting candles in churches I visit and thinking of someone I once knew and hoping that they prosper now.

imageIn ‘Vietnam Memorial’ Shapiro wrote:

… Topside you can hear children at their games,

Down in this trench there is no gab,

Someone lays flowers under a name that was,

Our eyes like seaworms crawl across the slab.

Coasting the fifty-thousand here who died,

We surface breathless, come up bleary-eyed.

There are no good wars, only records of failure. I’ve always come away from here feeling they deserve more. A snap from the family album would be more; a letter from a classmate; a note home. I’ll come again. It’s like keeping company.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/15 at 12:45 PM


Lovely, evocative post, reminding me of my own time spent in the area. And, of course, I have to add:
At Madingley, on Christmas Eve,
There’s things go on you’ld not believe.

Posted by Jeremy Cherfas on 12/17 at 05:11 AM

John, you manage sad but lovely narrative so well.  I’ve been reading Peter Harnik’s book about “finding” parkland in cities—Urban Green—and he looks to cemeteries among other spaces.  Did you observe people recreating at American Cemetery?

You can follow the cemetery thread on my blog

Posted by Georgia on 12/22 at 09:02 AM
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