What’s in a name?

Most of us will be familiar with the phrase ‘Their name liveth for evermore’ – suggested by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘fine thought or words of sacred dedication’ to be inscribed on Edwin Lutyens’ great Stone of Remembrance. The phrase is unsurprisingly, of biblical origin – Ecclesiasticus 44 to be precise:

‘There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. 
And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. 
But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. 
With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant. 
Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. 
Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. 
Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.’

I’ve chosen to include a little more of the verse to provide some context because the sentiment of perpetual remembrance and the language of idealism used (merciful men, righteousness, glory etc) became popular choices for the personal inscriptions and other memorial texts of the First World War.

‘Their glory shall not be blotted out’ can be seen on many a CWGC headstone, it is a phrase similar in tone to that which is inscribed on many domestic war memorials. ‘Our glorious dead’ – 3 words which to me reflect, a sense of unity and homecoming (our), society’s recognition and admiration of the dead in upholding a moral code of conduct (glorious) and desperate realism of war (dead). 

It seems to me that ‘Their name liveth for evermore’ chimed with the public in post war commemorative landscape because names took on a far greater meaning in the aftermath of the First World War than they ever had before. The geographical distance between the death of a man at the Front and his next of kin, meant that in the first instance death was confined to exist solely within the written word. The news initially arrived by telegram, formal and brief, death was concisely conveyed – not so much within the word ‘died’ but in the name of the loved one whom the reader must surely have dreaded to see. From this point on, in lieu of the body which remained ‘in some distant land’ the name would become a central vessel for grief, mourning and memorialisation. A letter from the man’s CO may arrive, to build the narrative around circumstances of death. These letters differed from the realist brevity of the official telegram, providing a raft of romantic language to remove the reader from the cruel reality of war.

The name may be reported in the local newspapers, perhaps alongside some other names – that of the street he lived on, or his regiment – these names too would come to take on a greater meaning in the eyes of the bereaved. Just as the name of a man became symbolic of the person (and body) in commemorative practise and grieving processes on a personal level, so too the names of the battles and places on the Old Front Line reflected it across communities and nationally. 

Through the press the names of ‘Ypres’ ‘Somme’ ‘Passchendaele’ and other areas previously unheard of by the majority of the population became synonymous with not just death but with sacrifice, honour, bravery and other abstract concepts describing the men and events that took place there. The names went through a semantic shift, which continues to this day. ‘The Somme’ has taken on meaning which is arguably now far removed from the truth and reality of the battle which took place there. To many members of the public today, the name is symbolic of the futile waste of life associated with the First World War, this interpretation has come to dwarf other more pragmatic responses such that the First World War was an unavoidable, grim necessity in the evolution of Europe.

For the men whose remains were never recovered, their names were imbued even more with the emotions of the bereaved. They were engraved on war memorials both abroad and at home which became surrogate graves and places of mourning and remembrance for individuals and communities. For the relatives of those who did have graves, there was an opportunity not just to bring the names of men home, but to bring names to them in their chosen epitaphs. 

Lovingly remembered

by his wife Nell

& children

baby Frank & Billie

Through names, a family are reunited with Sergeant W Harris at Point 110 New Military Cemetery. For me, these are some of the most powerful epitaphs – their impact on the reader is timeless. In them, I see not only the man but his family and the terrible gap left in their lives as a result of the war. One is reminded, though it isn’t explicitly stated, that this is true of every single headstone surrounding you in the Silent Cities. 

What’s in a name? Well Mr Shakespeare, I would argue quite a lot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s