De­sign­ing the war ceme­ter­ies for our lost sol­diers was a bat­tle in it­self

The Daily Telegraph - - First World War Armistice centenary - Vic­to­ria Wal­lace Vic­to­ria Wal­lace is the di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion

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.

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