The Power of Words – CWGC epitaphs of the Great War

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has become synonymous with commemoration of war dead. The commission was founded by Sir Fabian Ware whose moral and political leanings helped shape the guiding principles of the organisation, most notably that of ‘equality in death’. He was a passionate believer in social reform, believing strongly that collectivism i.e. putting the needs of community above those of the individual, was central to a more prosperous and peaceful society. For me, there is no better reflection of Ware’s desire for a more balanced society than the Commission’s decision to implement a uniform headstone design. 

However, the decision to enforce identical headstones for all graves was the cause of much controversy at the time. By putting the overall public interest above the needs of the individual the CWGC ignited the struggle between collectivism and individualism. The idea that all fallen should be commemorated with a degree of commonality, meant as a result that families were denied their personal expressions of grief and memorialisation – this was on top of the heavy blow which had been dealt to families from the ban on repatriations. After the free vote in the House of Commons in 1920, the guiding principles of the Commission were set in both metaphorical and physical stone, but it was not beyond their vision that they should allow the bereaved some method of affecting a personalisation of the memorials to their loved ones and, following recommendation in the Kenyon report, a decision was made to allow next of kin the option to choose a:

‘short inscription of not more than three lines’ of ‘an appropriate text or prayer or words of dedication’

In the aftermath of the war the CWGC sent a ‘Final Verification Form’ to the next of kin of each known casualty. The purpose of this document was to check the veracity of personal information relating to the dead soldier and it was within this form that next of kin were provided with the option of including a personal inscription (PI) for their loved one’s headstone. The commission did not draw up any official guidelines to regulate the choice of inscriptions, though they defined a limit of 66 characters and noted a charge of 3½ pence per letter – but as with pretty much every IWGC guideline or rule, there are many exceptions. Guy Charles Boileau Willock who is buried at Dud Corner has an inscription of 204 characters and Duncan Flower Cunningham-Reid at Cement House, 109.

Each personal inscription was reviewed and any that appeared overly negative or likely to cause political upset were rejected, and the next of kin contacted and asked to provide an alternative. CWGC meeting notes reveal an example of one man’s parents who requested the epitaph ‘HIS LOVING PARENTS CURSE THE HUN’. This was deemed inappropriate and Ware wrote to them, requesting they choose something else. They responded with ‘WITH EVERY BREATH WE DRAW/WE CURSE THE GERMAN MORE/MAY THE FRENCH AND BRITISH PAW/ KEEP THE DEVILS IN THEIR PLACE/FOR EVERMORE’ showing that the CWGC process of negotiation with Next of Kin was not always successful! 

Overall around 45% of named graves have an epitaph chosen by families. The percentage is noticeably higher for officers whose families were more likely to be traceable by the CWGC and better able to afford the arbitrary costs associated with PIs. Australian graves also have a higher uptake with around 55% including personalisation. In contrast the New Zealand government, concerned that personal inscriptions would be lead to an imbalance in the equality of the dead, decided to exclude the option (although, as per the common CWGC theme, there are exceptions: Private Norman Williams of the NZ Regiment at Coursells-Au-Bois on the Somme has a personal inscription that reads ‘BELOVED SON OF GEORGE & RUTH WILLIAMS, BRISTOL ENG. HE DIED FOR YOU AND ME’). 

Choices of epitaphs varied from quotations of scripture or literature (Tennyson being the most popular), direct reference to the war or civilian life (underlining personal details such as age or hometown) or simply traditional pre-war epitaphic language. Most commonly next of kin used a combination of these. By looking at the over-arching themes conveyed in PIs we are able to learn a lot about the culture and attitudes of the bereaved, from religion’s influence to gender roles, and much more. Whilst there are many striking and unusual epitaphs, I’d like to look at that of Private W.A. Davies, buried at Flatiron Copse on the Somme.

Private Davies’ Father had passed away by the time the CWGC sent the Final Verification Form, so it was left to his Mother, Jenny, to choose the words for her son’s grave. This epitaph brings together a number of themes common in PI’s. Distance and age are the first of these as ‘AWAY FROM HIS HOME’ reminds us of the unusual struggle faced by the bereaved in having their loved ones die somewhere far from home and indeed remain there in death, due to the ban on repatriations. ‘AND THE FRIENDS OF HIS YOUTH’ further highlighting the sense of Private Davies being removed from his roots which was evidently important to Jenny, who provided details of their address in Bridgend to be included in the cemetery register – another important source of memorial text from which we can learn a lot. This line also invites us to consider his age – merely 22 when he died. As a generation of parents came to terms with many of their children predeceasing them, referencing age in PIs, even though it was already included as standard on the epitaph, was not uncommon. 

The second half of the inscription is unique to war epitaphs – calling upon militaristic language. By choosing to reference information which may have been provided to her in a letter by Davies’ CO (which often followed the official notice of death telegram) we feel a sense of Jenny’s pride and acceptance of her son’s death in service of his country. These letters rarely reflected the reality of a soldier’s death but were intended to provide some comfort and context. ‘HE FELL LIKE A SOLDIER/HE DIED AT HIS POST’ reflects the ideals of duty and bravery, qualities that the bereaved often wished to convey to the reader. 

PIs provide us with brief, individual accounts of the impact of the Great War. In taking the time to understand their origin and meaning, we can learn much about the people who chose them, and the unifying grief that swept the Commonwealth. We can and do of course impart our own meaning and sentiment onto them. Some are clear cut and their meaning cannot be argued, others are open to many different interpretations. For me, this is true wonder of them.

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