Remembering the Fallen, Commemorating the First World War
by Lt. General Sir Alistair Irwin KCB CBE of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
A Joint meeting with Kington Remembers
An attempt at proper commemoration of those who died as a result of war are, from wounds or disease, in the service of this Country, or those of the Commonwealth only began in the early days of WWI, when a Red Cross Unit came across a recent ‘cemetery’, with at least plain crosses there, but no details, or any registration of the site or burials. They decided that those who lay there should be properly identified, and that the details should be recorded and available. This has lead to the subsequent efforts to properly record and identify every casualty in any part of the World, from the Commonwealth, so that their sacrifice is noted and acknowledged, and also for the benefit of their families, who often suffered multiple losses.
This was a complete change from previous occasions, where mass communal graves, if any, were denoted perhaps by a solitary boulder, one for each ‘side’ possibly, as at Culloden in 1745. Waterloo was no different – but in 1861, an elaborate memorial was concocted in Brussels. Cemeteries from the Crimea and Scutari were mostly unmarked, and in South Africa, plain cairns marked the resting places of combatants from both sides, with a few actual monuments for individuals. In the Egyptian campaign, all were buried together – whether wounded or Cholera victims, and there was no follow up.
So, in 1915, a Graves Registration Committee commenced accurate recording, and had to cope with 50,000 cases that year. Choices began to be made about permanent sites, and in 1917, it was decided that all casualties of the war from land or sea action should be dealt with (‘air casualties’ came later).
Most of the action was in France or Belgium at first, but later became more or less world wide, and also those who died back at home were included, with a number of cemeteries, the largest being at Brookwood, near London. There were some memorials that were not actual grave sites, and also Germans and Poles might be noted.
So this organization required a huge disparate, but dedicated staff, and funding is from the War Office budget, and Commonwealth countries contribute ‘pro rata’, according to the numbers involved. Most staff are gardeners and stonemasons, and fairly early on, a standard headstone was chosen, of appropriate or local material, with room for an inscription, with a name if known, and a plain religious symbol. Monuments for multiple memorials – which may include names of those whose grave is unknown, early on involved Lutyens, and Gertrude Jekyll became an advisor for the choice of floral accompaniments – to emphasize, rather than distract attention from the memorials. The inscription “Their name liveth for evermore” was suggested by Kipling, who had suffered a loss himself, and the lettering was in up to date Gill typeface.
Lutyens was concerned with the huge memorials for those with no known grave, with adequate space left for additions, as they are constantly turned up. The best known are those at Menin and Thiepval.. The sites are carefully managed, with the vegetation tending to frame, rather than to overshadow the memorials, and all contribute to a sense of peace, all very different from the turmoil with which it all began. Review JR.