The 21st May 2021 sees the beginning of the CWGC’s first #WarGravesWeek as well the anniversary of the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission by Royal Charter in 1917. To mark this occasion I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what the CWGC means to me and how it forms an integral part of the foundations of my passion for the First World War.
Author and poet Rudyard Kipling, whose only son John died in the war, referred to the CWGC cemeteries as the ‘Silent Cities’, a phrase that has always resonated deeply with me. Whenever I wander the rows of headstones in the cemeteries that adorn the map of the Old Front Line like jewels of shining Portland stone, I feel as if I’m walking streets lined not by graves, but by men and women who occupy the spaces carved for them from the battlefields in perpetuity. Each headstone, though a marker and memorialisation in death, somehow provides life and a dozen stories through the words engraved upon it.
Whilst I had been aware of the CWGC and their work for many years, it wasn’t until 2016 on a trip to the Somme that I connected with the work of the commission on a much more spiritual level. On a dawn walk from Lochnagar Crater I watched the sun rise across Sausage Valley and felt what I can only describe as a bizarre sense of deja vu despite never having walked that path before. It put me in the oddest frame of mind, not particularly sad or mournful, but peaceful, almost comforted. Sitting on the wall at Flatiron Copse a while later I remember many thoughts drifting through my mind, mostly questions really. I wanted to know who every man in the cemetery was, to find out more about them and their lives. Where were they from? How old were they? Were they married, did they have kids? What were they like – were they funny, always joking around with their chums, or the grumpy sensible type growling under their breath but reliable when the chips were down. How did they die? Was it quick – I do hope so, yet for some I know it wasn’t. These questions filled my consciousness and I knew most would forever remain unanswered. The facts I could established, I could consult archives for the men’s particulars and the headstones themselves gave me plenty – name, regiment, age, date of death so carefully inscribed. But most of the questions about those details that make us really human could not be answered. Those things would remain unspoken, unwritten, silently lingering in this place. Although there was perhaps one clue, the personal inscriptions added by the bereaved at the bottom of many of the headstones.
These few lines captivated me, they still do today. What we can learn through the words chosen by the next of kin, a window into the past and the lives of not only the men and women who died, but their families and friends, too. I have written blogs and spoken many times about personal inscriptions, the history behind their inclusion by the CWGC and the stories behind some which I’ve found most striking. Yet there is something I can fail to explain fully or put into words adequately about what I feel when reading them or exploring the Silent Cities, and this is part of the power of the CWGC’s work. The ability to provide an intangible yet very real connection to the First World War for visitors on the battlefields and here in the U.K. in our local churchyards. To evoke emotions and provide a perspective that gives a spiritual guidance like no other. This is not a blog to tell you history of the commission, a cemetery or even a particular man or woman commemorated therein, it’s simply a few words to say the Silent Cities mean something to me that cannot be spoken, that is silent, but in it’s silence there is power that drives me in so much of what I do.