Find­ing the words

Sunderland Echo - - Armistice 100 -

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

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