On a damp, chilly day the strains of Deutschland Uber Alles drift through the trees. It’s a surreal moment as we climb out of the sand and gravel floor of the Sherbrook Valley, Cannock Chase. We wind our way through dripping silver birches as a brass band strikes up a sombre God Save the Queen. It soon becomes clear: It’s Remembrance Sunday and we have emerged from the woods at the edge of the German War Cemetery.
Cannock Chase is an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) unknown to most who live outside the Midlands. Here, in a natural bowl, tucked away behind spruce and pine, is the resting place of 5,000 German and Austrian servicemen. While services are going on across the UK, it is easy to forget the suffering of common-folk on both sides of the conflict. These German and Austrian men would never return to their girlfriends and wives across the sea. It is a quiet spot, away from cars and mobile phones. There is only the occasional dog-walker or mountain biker. A few hundred yards away is the Sherbrook Valley where British and Commonwealth troops were trained before leaving for the trenches. Even on a chill November morning it is difficult to imagine the hardship these determined men faced as they were drilled endlessly on the snowy, exposed slopes of the Chase. Of course, they would face greater hardship in the Somme and Ypres.
Closeby is the Katyn Memorial. Staffordshire has had a strong Polish community for decades and the memorial is dedicated to those massacred by Russian forces.