Designing the war cemeteries for our lost soldiers was a battle in itself
This week, the Prime Minister has met the French President at Thiepval; Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, will be at the Vimy Ridge Memorial and the King of Belgium will mark his country’s gratitude at the Menin Gate at Ypres, which bears the names of more than 54,000 soldiers with no known grave.
War cemeteries are part of our cultural landscape; the focal point of pilgrimages to the battlefields and for national commemorations. They stand dignified, protected and carefully tended by Commonwealth War Graves Commission teams across 150 lands.
Yet a century ago these cemeteries and memorials were a new concept – and not universally welcomed.
A slim report on war graves was published in 1918 by Sir Frederic Kenyon, the director of the British Museum, recommending the way in which the cemeteries abroad would be designed. He had simple principles: what was done for one should be done for all, and that whatever their military rank, or position in civil life, all should have equal treatment in their graves.
For the family of a private soldier from a poor background, it must have been a comfort to know he had been afforded a final resting place, bearing his name, which would be cared for. Some mothers only wanted to be sure that “some kind soul would lay a flower on my son’s grave”.
But the uniformity of the headstone design caused much upset. “The proposed stones are a disgrace and I for one do not intend that one shall remain on my son’s grave,” wrote one bereaved parent. Many were devastated by the ecumenical decision of the Commission to mark the graves with a headstone rather than by a cross. Some wanted a personal design. Still others wanted to bring their children home – little realising, perhaps, that half the war dead had no identified grave.
Years of recriminations ensued. Some bereaved parents made repeated attempts to overturn the commission’s decision. Anna Durie, whose son was a Canadian officer, even made the trip to France and, after a gruesome night raid on his grave, took much of her son’s remains home to Ottawa.
Perhaps these angry and hurt exchanges were the inevitable articulations of the grief of a nation. The matter ended up in Parliament in 1920, where Winston Churchill, as Secretary of State for War, championed the commission’s work and allowed it to continue unimpeded.
And thank goodness. Anyone visiting a municipal cemetery in the UK dating back to the early years of the 20th century would understand the merit of the decision, however tough, because these graves, once tended by families, now lie in various stages of decay; inaccessible and abandoned. We are not good at caring for the graves of those we didn’t know.
Almost all those who died in the First World War are beyond living memory, yet almost everywhere, the commission is able to reach them, care for them, and ensure that those who make the pilgrimage to the battlefields can remember the men and women where they fell. There are more than 23,000 sites, more than half of which are in the UK, the final resting places of those who died at home. Almost all will have some commemoration this weekend, and, I am certain, next year, and in the years to come.
As a nation we want to remember. Ever more people are finding their own connections to the war dead and want a sense of being part of this history and honouring their longforgotten family members by visiting the graves of the First World War. Long may it, and our work, continue.