I went to my first Commonwealth War Cemetery when I was nineteen. At the time, I was studying military history at university, with a particular focus on the First World War.
I’d mentioned to my father one day, when home, that I really wanted to get over to France to try and get some sense of the scale of the things I was reading about, but that I didn’t have the money. A few weeks later he rang me and said that he’d bought tickets for a battlefield tour.
That trip, some eighteen years ago now, will forever be burned in my memory. For me, it was the point where history stopped being purely rational and abstract and instead became real. For the first time, I felt like I was looking past the raw facts and numbers on the page, to the thousands of individual stories that combine to create the giant, nebulous blob that is human history.
I don’t think I’m unusual in that. The Commonwealth War Cemeteries that lie in northern France, Belgium and elsewhere have a way of twisting your entire core. If you return to them after experiencing that, then you can often see the exact moment when that feeling hits the first time visitors around you too.
Tragedies both large and small
Most people, at least in the UK, will be passingly familiar with what the average war cemetery looks like. The image of thousands (quite literally in some cases) of uniform white, Portland Stone grave markers side-by-side is affecting even in photo form. This is a feature, not a bug. Soldiers of all ages, races, classes and ranks died together, so the decision was made, long ago, to bury them together too. More than that, no distinction was to be made in the way they were buried.
It was a brave — and to my mind correct — decision, but one which caused no small amount of controversy at the time. The history of the Commonwealth (née Imperial) War Graves Commission is a fascinating one, and deserves an article of its own one day.
It is a mistake, however to assume that this uniformity is total. The gravestones follow a standardised formula, but up close the small differences between each stone become clear and are almost amplified by their wider similarities.
A large part of what makes them unique is the way they are inscribed. What most people don’t know is that although they all broadly follow the same formula, there was one small area at the bottom of the tombstone that didn’t have to be. Here, if they had the money, the family of the deceased could have a few, short words engraved upon the stone.
Largely because of those short inscriptions I think individual Commonwealth war graves are among the saddest, most evocative things anyone can ever read.
Every one of them is a short story in tragedy.
I’m conscious that not everyone has had — or will ever have — the chance to make the a trip to France or Belgium themselves. So on a recent trip I made a concerted effort to try and capture some photos of individual gravestones to share here on Medium.
What follows here is a short visual journey though those images. Where useful, I’ve added some context. In most cases, however, I feel it is unnecessary. It is better simply to get out of the way and let those left behind — the mothers, fathers, children and friends of a lost generation — speak for themselves.
“Known Unto God”
Sometimes the absence of information can be more affecting than its presence. Spend any time in Commonwealth War Cemeteries and there is one short inscription you will see more than anything else.
“A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.”
These words, which appear on a grave when the presence of a body there (or nearby) is known, but their identity is not, were coined by Rudyard Kipling.
At the outbreak of war, Kipling’s own son, John was initially rejected by the army for being short-sighted. Rudyard used his influence to secure John a commission, and in August 1915 Lieutenant John Kipling embarked for France.
He was killed one month later at the Battle of Loos, aged just seventeen. At the time Kipling wrote these words, John had no known grave.
I think they are the saddest nine words in the English language.
Lance Corporal A. J. Cole. Age 37
“Thought drift back to bygone days / Life moves on / But memory stays. Mother.”
Lance Corporal Cole — as with some of the other stones shown here — shows that the more things change the more they stay the same. He is a victim of the Second World War, buried alongside those of the First.
Lance Corporal S. Smith. Age unknown
“So short was our life together dear. Memories of thee forever sweet. Esther.”
Second Lieutenant P.E. Coote. Age 24
“In loving memory of my darling son. Sadly mourned and missed. Mother.”
Jewish headstones are often the easiest to spot in war cemeteries from a distance. They are rarely missing a few stones of memory on top, even in the smallest of cemeteries. These graves are always a useful reminder that those of all sexes, races and creeds fought died in service in the First World War and beyond.
Driver E. A. D. Kamal. Age unknown
In a similar vein, the grave of Driver Kamal can be found alongside his comrades in London Cemetery, on the Somme. He is buried close to High Wood, where many soldiers from 2nd Indian Cavalry Division also died.
Driver Susai. Age unknown.
Meanwhile in Lijssenthoek, Belgium, you’ll find Driver Susai, a Hindu serving with the Royal Horse Artillery. Also visible in this picture is one of the many graves of the Chinese Labour Corps who died, in their thousands, on the Western Front.
Herm Lambert and unknown soldier
Occasionally you’ll also find former enemies lying side by side.
Serjeant D. Kirkady. Age 32 and Unknown Soldier
“Dearly beloved son of Mr & Mrs Cottam. Ever in our thoughts.”
Where space is limited, you will often see combined graves.
Private P. Fenton. Age 28
“Peter. I loved you in life. You are dear to me still.”
Privates L. Murphy and G.W. Marsland. Age 20
“Requiescat in Pace.”
“Never forgotten by his loving mother, father, sisters & brothers.”
Lance Corporal W. MC Clelland and Serjeant M. Dunne. Ages 27 and 29
“In our hearts we mourn the loss of one we loved so well. Sadly missed by all.”
“He is gone but never forgotten. Never shall his memory fade from his sorrowing wife and children.”
Lance Corporal B. Burgess. Age unknown
“Your mother loved you dearly. But God loved you best. Rest in peace.”
Private G. Warford. Age 22 and unknown soldier
“Gone but not forgotten by a mother. May his soul rest in peace.”
Gunner Walter Caunt. Age 21
“As years roll by, we miss you more. He did his duty.”
Private F. G. Marshall. Age 20
“Till we meet again. Dad, Mam.”
Staff Nurse N. Spindler. Age 26
“A noble type of good, heroic womanhood”
‘Nellie’ Spindler’s rank of Staff Nurse is deceptive. Her role was far more important than that. She was an abdominal specialist, and for that reason recognised the need to serve as near to the front line as possible to give the soldiers she treated the best chance of survival.
She was killed when the aid station she was serving at was shelled during the Battle of Passchendaele. She now lies buried among the soldiers she fought so hard to save.
Private Harry A King. Age unknown
“The best of sons and brothers. Also Reggie, buried close by.”
A rare American burial in a British cemetery. Not visible in this photo is the series of small American coins left on top by visitors over the years.
Private Adam Shaw. Age 22
“In loving memory of my dear husband & our dear dada our hero.”
Private T. Pigg. Age 28
“Ever remembered by his loving wife and daughter Jessie.”
Private T. Boyce. Age 28
“Sleep on my darling son. All debts of honor paid. Mother.”
Lance Coporal W. J. Harvey. Age 27
This is one of the rare graves that lack any religious markings.
Private J.H. Counter. Age 34
“Gone but not forgotten by his loving wife and daughter.”
Private A. Fieldhouse. Age 27
“Sweet memory of dadda is a priceless possession. Ray, Iris, Nana.”
Private A. J. Galbraith. Age 19
It is not so much the inscription on Private Galbraith’s gravestone that is memorable, but that on the small memorial left many years later leaning upon it.
“James. Gone are the days when as boys we played in the woods and fields of Dalswinton. Fond memories. Your brother, Albert.”
Private W. Townsend. Age 34
“In loving memory of my dear husband William. No one knows how much I loved you.”
What is particularly tragic about Private Townsend’s death is that he didn’t die in battle. He was one of a small group of British soldiers who held the village of Wormhoudt during the retreat to Dunkirk, in order to buy enough time for others to escape from the beaches.
Having run out of ammunition, Townsend and approximately one hundred fellow soldiers were overrun and surrendered to the 1st SS Division.
Rather than being taken as prisoners of war, Townsend and the other soldiers were marched into a nearby barn, into which grenades were thrown. The surviving wounded soldiers were then shot.
Gunner W.A.G Grindrod. Age 21
“Only one to all the world. But all the world to us, our only son.”
Gunner Grindrod was another victim of the Wormhoudt massacre.
Private J. F. Houston. Age 25
“His last words: “Best love to mother.”
Private E. Grant. Age 33
“Would some thoughtful hand / In this distant land / Please scatter some flowers for me.”
The final word
It seems fitting to end this piece with one final gravestone. It is that of Arthur Conway Young, who can be found in Tyne Cot Cemetery, another victim of the Battle of Passchendaele.
“Born at Kobe, Japan 9th October 1890. Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.”