Finding the words
It wasn’t until the end of the First World War that the reality of grief began to bite. Mothers and fathers, friends and families, all had to come to terms with the loss of loved ones, often buried far away.
When the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission began the task of marking the graves of the British Empire’s dead, a form was sent to the next-of-kin, offering them the opportunity to include a short epitaph on the headstone. In less than 66 characters – shorter than a ‘tweet’ – they had to find the words to express their feelings.
Today, these words of remembrance are a moving record of grief. From biblical quotations to poetry, defiant statements of meaning and purpose, and poignant messages of loss and love, they are an illuminating insight into the legacy of the war.
Researchers at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have been studying more than 200,000 personal inscriptions from First World War headstones, using this unique archive to understand more about how families chose to remember their dead.
Most striking is the overwhelming role of religion. Perhaps this is unsurprising, but it is easy to underestimate how important faith and church were in community life in the 1920s. Almost all of the most popular phrases were religious. After more familiar sentiments such as ‘Rest in Peace’, one of the most frequently selected was ‘Until the day break, and the shadows flee away’, a biblical quotation from the Song of Solomon.
Epitaphs were chosen with the expectation that they would be read by visitors to the cemeteries. There are some messages in the second person, but far more were in the third person: ‘his loving wife’ is far more common than ‘your loving wife.’ Aside from religion and remembrance, ‘duty’ is the most common theme, followed by King and country.
Many different languages were used, from Welsh and Latin to French and Gaelic. One family even submitted a line of musical notation. Found on the headstone of Second Lieutenant Hugh Gordon Langton, at Poelcapelle British Cemetery near Ieper in Belgium, it is one of a kind.
Interestingly, Australian families were more likely to choose an epitaph which referred to the King than British families. At that time, the so-called ‘Dominions’ and Britain still had very close ties, and many of those who served with Canadian, Australian or New Zealand forces were born in Britain, or had families there. Often they understood the war in terms of an imperial effort. The inscription on the grave of Australian Robert Hooper says: ‘He died like a Britisher.’
Although there were several common phrases which formed the majority of the inscriptions, they also demonstrate a remarkable variety of influences, from literary quotations such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, to hymns and popular songs. The family of Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler, buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium, chose the words written by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in tribute to Florence Nightingale: ‘A noble type of good heroic womanhood’.
To honour this tradition, we commissioned Sir Andrew Motion to write a new poem – ‘Armistice’ – inspired by the last words chosen for Private Roy Douglas Harvey: “My task accomplished and the long day done”.
Visiting a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery is always a moving experience, but the most poignant part is often the simple and heartfelt messages from far away families, such as the words chosen for the headstone of William O’Bree, an Australian who died at Gallipoli in 1915: ‘We miss him at home.’
Find out more about how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission defined modern remembrance in the online exhibition Shaping Our Sorrow at www. shapingoursorrow.cgwc.org