Before the First World War soldiers were generally buried in mass graves. Only those who were in the upper ranks would have been accorded an individual burial and a memorial.
As it says on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, “It is difficult for those of us who have become familiar with the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate our war dead to appreciate what a revolutionary idea remembrance and, therefore, the Commission was in 1917. Nonetheless, the Commission was a pioneer and what it was doing during and in the aftermath of the First World War was extraordinary.
Never had a nation, let alone an Empire as vast and multicultural as the British Empire, attempted to commemorate all its war dead from a given conflict. No template existed for the task of commemorating the dead on such a mammoth scale. Everything we now take for granted, every facet of remembrance, had to be worked out, debated, costed and delivered.
The Commission, and the establishment of remembrance as we know it, is largely thanks to the vision and determination of one man Fabian Ware.”
I have used the Commission’s site many, many times to look up information on British First World War Cemeteries in my area of France. Simply by typing in your postcode you can find all the gravesites in your area.
When I saw that the Commission was having an open day at their headquarters in Beaurains near Arras I jumped at the chance to know more.
I have always been impressed by the amount of information on a British war grave. There is the badge of the regiment such as the Royal Naval Division, or simply the Suffolk Regiment or the more poetic the Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Next comes the number and grade of the soldier, then as much of his name as is known, his battalion name followed by his date of death and his age. Usually there is a large cross and space for a few words, such as Rest in Peace or something more personal that was chosen by his family. By contrast French memorials are simple crosses with the name of the soldier, rank and only the initials of the regiment. If you don’t know that R.I.C is Regiment of Infantry Colonial then R.I.C. is not much use. The date of death is written on a French soldier’s grave but not his age.
German war graves have 4 names on the back and front arms of wooden crosses – hardly any information at all.
First of all we were shown the supplies of stone that could be used for memorials. I was surprised to see reddish ones and slate stones waiting to be engraved. In France the usual stones are white Portland stone but other materials are sometimes used. We were surprised to see finished headstones waiting to be shipped to Nigeria.
We learnt that there are subtile differences in the top shape of stones. For instance, a rounded top may indicate not a soldier but an administrator of the commission.
All the iron work in a French cemetery is made or repaired at Beaurains. The decorative finials on top of fences or gates are made in the smithy at Beaurains as are the metal boxes that contain the Book of Remembrance at each cemetery. A worn or degraded piece of metal work can be recreated or repaired in the CWGC workshop.
Then we were shown how the engraving was done and could even have a go ourselves at etching our names or tapping away with stonemason’s tools.
Inside the building was an explanation of how exhumed bodies could be identified by the types of buttons or the shape of a helmet. The presence of a wooden baton would indicate the rank of officer.
I have just found that I can join a Facebook site that gives news of the CWGC. I haven’t mentioned the meticulous work of keeping the cemeteries beautifully cared for with neatly mown grass and flowers in front of each grave. That is part of the legacy of Fabian Ware – he wanted the graveyards to be peaceful and pleasant and not sad, morbid places. I was touched to see a flower picture – it was the blue and red Pulmonaria – also known as Soldiers and Sailors!