November sees the centenary of the end of the Great War, the war to end all wars in which the dead from British and Empire forces reached 1,244,000 with more than another 2,000,000 wounded. Many have travelled to see the battlefields to gain a sense of what their forefathers endured during this appalling period in history which cost the lives of nearly 20,000,000 and 23,500,000 injured from all sides over four years.
Even on the morning of 11th November 1918, 853 Allies and 3000 Americans were killed or wounded before the cease fire at 11.00 am.
As well as seeing evidence of trench warfare, visitors have seen the War graves, those silent battalions who lie in such tranquillity. Fewer people realise how these outstanding scenes came about and who were responsible for those temples of serenity so admired today.
Rhydian Vaughan, who is Vice President of the Bramley Royal British Legion, a village just north of Basingstoke in Hampshire, has been Battlefield Guiding since 2000 with eclectic groups, large and small, old and young. Passion is his driving force and bringing history to life: his strap line is “Without a passionate Guide a battlefield is just a field.”
The Probus Club of Basingstoke was enlightened to hear about how Sir Fabian Ware, who at 45 was too old to enlist, was, in 1915, leading a Red Cross unit in France. He recognised that no system or process existed for registering the dead who were buried in unconstructed graves near to where they fell. He anticipated future concerns would be expressed by a grateful nation at the lack of respect for the men who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Well connected he was able to influence the establishment of the Graves Registration and Enquiries Commission so early in the war.
By 1917 significant progress had been made and the organisation was renamed the Imperial War Graves Commission. Rather than repatriate the dead it was considered better that they were looked after in local cemeteries in individual graves. Until this time the war dead were often interred in mass graves. It set about planning for the creation of hundreds of cemeteries across all the countries where conflict had occurred.
It was felt that because the sacrifice had been in common, the memorial should be in common also. Whatever their military rank or position in civil life, they should have equal treatment in their graves. This brought about considerable consternation that families could not repatriate their loved ones for private memorials to be constructed.
Three great British architects were selected to lead the artistic interpretation necessary to overcome this antipathy. They were Lutyens, Blomfield and Baker, who headed up teams of younger architects. The teams would be men who had served and would understand the solemnity needed to carry out this task.
The Commission decided that the headstone would be a uniform height of 2 feet 6 inches and 1 foot 3 inches wide and made of white Portland stone. Simple inscriptions would contain the name, rank, number and date killed while regimental symbols allowed for some variation. Each team was responsible for subtle design differences between sites while conforming to the brief of creating the inspiring formation of headstones, memorials and buildings to be seen today.
The memorials have the inscribed names of around half a million missing who have no known grave. These include the famous Thiepval Memorial on the Somme and the Menin Gate, Ypres, where tonight, as on every night at 8.00 pm, buglers from the local Fire Brigade play The Last Post.
Kew Gardens had input on the style of the ground work of the cemeteries. It was decided that the individual headstones should appear to be set on flat turf rather than individual mounds. The garden designer Gertrude Jeckyll, was part of the committee as was the poet and writer Rudyard Kipling whose only son was killed in the war.
The Imperial War Graves Commission is today called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose headquarters are in Maidenhead. Regional offices are France, Belgium, Cyprus, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. They have research facilities that aid investigation by families making enquiries about the burial site of relatives who lost their lives in the service of this country.
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