Whitby High School

Battlefields Tour 18th-21st March 2006


British War Cemeteries


British War Cemeteries - General Information

i) The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

All the British and Commonwealth cemeteries were built and maintained by this organisation. It was established in 1917, towards the end of the First World War, largely at the instigation of a man called Fabian Ware. The job of the Commission is still fundamentally the same as it was when established, to mark and maintain the graves of members of the forces of the Commonwealth killed in action during the two World Wars, to build memorials to those with no known grave, and to keep an accurate record and register of the dead that may be consulted by their relatives.

The Commission is a large organisation, with a staff of 1,300, the majority of whom are gardeners and craftsmen. They look after 2,500 cemeteries spread over 140 countries worldwide, although by far the greatest concentration are in north-west Europe, particularly in France and Belgium. Over 900,000 men and women killed in the two World Wars are buried under CWGC headstones over identified graves, and a further 800,000 are commemorated on memorials to the missing such as the on at Thiepval. The cemeteries on the Salient and Somme tours reflect the principles that Fabian Ware set down in 1917.

  • There is a great emphasis on individual remembrance, so that every serviceman or woman killed in the Western Front has their name commemorated there once, either on a named headstone or on a memorial.
  • All the dead were to be treated equally, hence the uniformity of the headstones (see below).
  • There was to be no repatriation of bodies, again for reasons of equality. Left to the families, the rich would be able to take their dead back to the country of origin and the poor would not. It was to prevent this and to ensure equality of treatment that Ware insisted in 1915 that all servicemen or women killed in a theatre of war should be buried there. It is a principle that has been followed worldwide until very recently and was certainly followed in the years after World War One. All the Empire dead of the Western Front (with the exception of those evacuated home wounded who died later) still lie here.

ii) The Style of the Cemeteries

Unknown burials - Each body found is given an individual burial where possible, whether it can be identified or not. Burials of bodies where identification was not possible are under headstones inscribe A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God', words chosen by Kipling. Each person buried in an un-named grave will be commemorated on a Memorial of the Missing. (Not everyone on a Memorial has a grave, of course, as many bodies were destroyed, or have not yet been found).

The Flowers and Trees - These are wherever possible similar to those that would grow naturally in the places where the dead come from - British flowers for British troops, Canadian trees and flowers for Canadian cemeteries, and so on. The pattern you see today was devised by architects working for the Commission in the early 1920's, and followed worldwide ever since. The cemeteries differ widely in size but the basic principle remains the same. They are meant to be beautiful, peaceful places that are both dignified and as comforting as possible to the bereaved families. One of the original architects stated that his aim was to make them as close in feel and atmosphere to an English country churchyard as size and location would allow. Another, Sir Edwin Lutyens, said that 'while it was important to secure the qualities of repose and dignity there was no need for the cemeteries to be gloomy and even sad looking places.'

iii) In the Cemeteries You Will See:

The Cross of Sacrifice

Common to all but the very smallest cemeteries and meant to symbolise those 'crucified on the battlefields1. It is the facal point for Christian remembrance in the cemetery.

The Stone of Remembrance

Usually only found in cemeteries of more that 400 burials, it is meant to provide a focus and wreath-laying site for commemoration and ceremonies in the cemetery that would be acceptable to those of any religion (or none). The inscription Their Name Liveth For Evermore' is taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus and was chosen by the poet Rudyard Kipling whose son Jack was one of the missing of the First World War.

The Register Box

A bronze container, usually set in a wall which contains the cemetery register and visitors book. The Stone of Remembrance The Register - The graves themselves are not set out in any particular order. They are, however, grouped together in a series of plots, each one of which has a number. Within the plots the rows are given an identification letter, then each grave in that row is numbered. The register helps families to find the grave they are looking for quickly and easily. The names of the dead are listed alphabetically and after the name the grave location is give, e.g., 'Bennet, Arthur, son of ...etc II.B.6.' (i.e. plot II, row B, grave 6). There is a map showing plots and rows at the front of the register.

Headstones

When these were designed, great stress was laid on equality of treatment. Thus a headstone was chosen rather than a cross, so as to be suitable for burials of any religion or none. All headstones were to be the same size and shape regardless of military or civil rank, race or creed. This might sound an obvious idea nowadays but in the early 1920's when these stones were designed, the idea of treating a Private in the same way as a General, a factory worker in the same way as a Peer of the Realm was incredibly forward thinking and controversial. Each one follows the same pattern, engrave with a national emblem or a service or regimental badge, followed by rank, name, unit, date of death and age. The inscription at the foot was chosen by the families of the dead and was the only personalisation of the gravestone's that the Commission allowed.

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen(1917)



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Updated 10th April 2006 by Mike Royden
The Whitby High School, Cheshire County Council.