The power of words

Tyne Cot Cemetery 

The cemeteries on the Western Front may to some people be nothing more than quiet rows of graves. The uniformity of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Portland stone headstones ensures that anyone passing knows that these are not civilian plots. To me however, these are more than just quiet cemeteries. There is much to hear, if you care to listen – a cacophony of voices asking to be heard.

After the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (the Imperial War Graves Commission as it was then) had a huge task on their hands. The Commission was formed during the war by a gentleman by the name of Sir Fabian Ware. He was not a solider, nor a politician or statesman, but a businessman and at 45, he was too old to join the services when the call to war came. He was however, desperate to ‘do his bit’ like so many, and so in 1914 he became a commander in a mobile Red Cross unit. These units travelled the Battlefields assisting casualties and providing comfort to troops where they could. Sir Fabian was incredibly saddened by the sheer number of injured and dead that he saw as part of his work and was deeply concerned by the lack of organised system in which to lay these men to rest. In the chaos of battle, the Army had few processes in place to arrange cemeteries and record details of men who had been killed, so Sir Fabian founded the IWGC to do just that. They began a system for recording where men were buried and caring for the graves where possible, even sending photographs back home to grieving relatives as some small comfort for their loss. It was after the Armistice in 1918 that that the IWGC’s work really began. Three of the most eminent architects of the time and poet and author Rudyard Kipling joined the commission and the epic task of designing and collating the 100,000’s of graves into the official CWGC cemeteries that we see today was began.

Kipling’s roll in this was one that sits in the nations consciousness. He became literary advisor to the commission. It was he who was responsible for deciding what immortal words would adorn the monuments and graves of the missing. ‘Known Unto God’ and ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’ were chosen by Kipling along with the inscriptions on the Menin Gate and many others. For individual graves however, choice was given to relatives and herein lies the power of words.

The IWGC vision was clear – that all men should be remembered equally. Decisions were made to ensure that Privates were remembered the same as Generals, the poor the same as the rich, black the same as white and so on. These decisions were controversial; bodies could not be repatriated by those who could afford to do so and personalised headstones were forbidden and those that had already been erected had to be removed.

Each headstone would, by default, contain certain information (where it was known) – the casualty’s name, age, regiment (and badge), regimental number and date of death. There would be the option for relatives to choose whether a religious symbol such as a cross or the Star of David was included. The IWGC saw the importance of allowing relatives some way to personalise the graves of their loved ones buried so far from home. To do this, they offered the chance for relatives to pay a fee for an additional inscription to be added. The rules were simple – it could not exceed 66 characters in length and must not be offensive. Around 20% of the graves have inscriptions of this type, a relatively small number out of the nearly 1 million dead. It is these words, that to me, hold so much power. It is incredible to see, as you wander along the rows, just how much emotion can be conveyed in 66 characters. The words provide us a window into the loss of the Mothers, Fathers, Wives and Children left behind. They are a fragment of grief, immortalised. Sometimes, you may catch a glimpse of the man that the words were written to remember. Perhaps they reflect how he died, what type of soldier he was, or his beliefs. ‘A loving Husband’, ‘sweet memory of Daddy’, ‘Soldier and great gentleman’.

Occasionally, I’ll stumble across an inscription that I can’t work out. I find myself sitting for hours just wondering. I was at Nine Elms Cemetery in Poperinghe a few weeks ago, where I found one such grave, which read simply – ‘Spiritual laws are also automatic. 2-3-18’. Perhaps from a letter that Private Owen sent home before he died? Like so many, take from this one what you will and within it perhaps there is a lesson to learn.

E.H.Owen – Nine Elms Cemetery

Author Sarah Wearne has collated many of these inscriptions in her series ‘Epitaphs of the Great War’ which I thoroughly recommend. But it is no substitute for being there on the Battlefields where these men fell – I will always take the time to look at what is written, but more importantly to listen to the stories that these words tell.

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