If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England…
From: The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Writing these lines in 1914, Rupert Brooke could never have dreamed that one day they would come to evoke so strongly, for the people of his homeland, the young men killed in battle during the First World War. Nor, having himself died in 1915, could he have envisaged the beautifully designed and lovingly tended cemeteries that were to rise up from the devastation of rat-infested, waterlogged Flemish battlefields in the corners of which he had helped to bury the fallen.
During the hostilities, around seven million civilians and ten million military personnel lost their lives. Two of these were my great uncles. They were amongst the 1,700,000 men who fell in defence of the Flemish town of Ypres (Ieper). In 2014, wanting to make sense of their final moments, I went to Ypres. On behalf of my late grandparents and great grandparents I wanted to visit their memorials. In doing so, I crossed battlefields, walked in trenches and tried to imagine the horrors once witnessed by that now peaceful landscape.
Along the way I learned how to ‘read’ the war graves cemeteries. Below, I share some of my discoveries.
All photos were taken at Poelkapelle, Tyne Cot, Essex Farm and Hooge Crater Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries in West Flanders.
There are two types of war graves cemetery: battlefield and military. These differ as follows: Apart from their smaller size, the hallmark of a battlefield cemetery is that the men lay exactly where they were buried by their brothers in arms during battle, only now with the addition of a permanent headstone. (See below.) When the larger military cemeteries, such as Poelkapelle and Tyne Cot were later created, many bodies were moved to these new sites and laid to rest in uniform rows, all facing the same direction.
The memorial stone in the foreground of the above image bears a closer look. Private T Barratt, below, was awarded the Victoria Cross. Apart from the soldier’s regiment and a cross, Star of David, or a Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim symbol, the Victoria Cross was the only other symbol permitted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the headstones.
Close by, is the final resting place of Rifleman V J Strudwick, below. His grave also receives a lot of attention. You’ll see why – look for his age.
Notice also an inscription at the bottom of Rifleman Strudwick’s stone: Not gone from memory or from love. Families of the deceased soldier were given the opportunity to have an epitaph engraved at the bottom of the headstone, to a maximum of 66 letters. They could write their own words or choose from a number of ‘standard’ epitaphs selected by Rudyard Kipling. However, whereas the headstone itself was provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, any inscription had to be paid for by the family, at a cost of threepence half-penny for each letter. My Great Uncle Joe’s stone, like that of Private Barratt VC, bears no inscription – the several shillings more, presumably, than their families could spare.
Next, the grave of a Jewish soldier, Rifleman M M Green. In the Jewish tradition, visitors have left memorial Stars of David, and piled pebbles on the gravestone.
In the front row of the next image, seven stones are set closely together. This is a communal grave for seven men killed in one blast – it was presumably not possible to work out precisely which body part belonged to which soldier.
And here, one little plot bearing the found remains of eight whole men. I won’t spell it out…
It was touching to see that local people continue to leave flowers and keepsakes, such as this rosary, on the graves of unknown soldiers.
The largest of all the Commonwealth military cemeteries anywhere in the world is Tyne Cot. Alongside 11,954 actual graves, a further 34,959 British and New Zealand soldiers are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing. Added to the 54,896 men whose names are recorded on the Menin Gate, this brings the total of men missing in Ypres to 89,855. Most of these men do not lie undiscovered beneath the heavy Flanders soil; many were found but not identified. Their names are commemorated on the plaques of the Menin Gate or Tyne Cot, but they may also be buried in graves like the one above: A Soldier of The Great War.
One of these missing soldiers, my Great Uncle Cyril, is commemorated at the Menin Gate.
All of these grounds were given in perpetuity by King Albert I of Belgium in recognition of the sacrifices made in the defence and liberation of Belgium during the war. Designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield and Sir Edwin Lutyens, with input from Gertrude Jekyll and Rudyard Kipling, contrary to expectations they are not forlorn, tragic ‘corners of some foreign field’. And yet nor do they glorify war. On the contrary, they are beautifully tended, tranquil spots: places to meditate on the people whose lives were so cruelly cut short.
Thank you for this moving piece.
My great-uncle John Thomas Hopkins was also killed at Passchendaele in October 1917 and, like you I have made several visits to the area. For the 90th anniversary and the centenary of his death, family members and I were able to stay in the B&B which now operates from Varlet Farm where he and more than 300 other Royal Marines (2nd Battalion, Royal Naval Division) died that day. He also has no known grave and is commemorated on Panel 1 at Tyne Cot (the Navy comes first in military protocol because the Navy is The Senior Service!)
More than fifty people turned up independently at Varlet Farm on both occasions, from far and wide, to remember family members. At the centenary a small Royal Navy Honour Party turned up, too, very smartly turned out in their best uniforms, complete with a flag to honour their fallen comrades. A small but heartfelt impromptu remembrance ceremony was held in the farmyard. Most assuredly Not Forgotten.
Like you we visited Poelcapelle Cemetery. An expert on the RND had told me that while there were about 325 Marines killed that day and more the next, the site of the ongoing battle then moved some way and it was not possible to recover many of the bodies for some months. But in Poelcapelle Cemetery, he told me, barely a mile from Varlet Farm, there are about 300 graves of unknown Royal Marines , their regiment identified from their uniforms presumably. So the odds are very much that my great uncle lies there, with his comrades. As I walked around, leaving poppy crosses I had brought from home, I found myself patting each headstone I found for an unknown Royal Marine – this might be him! As we left the cemetery and looked out over the tranquil landscape I noticed that a tractor had churned up great gouges of mud at the edge of the road, the mud of Passchendaele had not quite gone away.
Thank you for this comment Glenys. I can tell that, like me, you get to know your ancestors well. They become real people – not just names on a page.
What an experience to have stayed at Varlet Farm, right in the middle of the events of October 1917. It’s touching to know that so many other people are still visiting the battlefields and remembering their family members. Thank you too, for mentioning the farm. I hadn’t heard of it before, and you sent me off to google maps, a trench map and the regimental diary for my great uncle Joe. I found that, like your great uncle John, he died just a couple of hundred yards from Varlet Farm, at a location the British soldiers called Calgary Grange. Perhaps if I get back to that area I’ll try to stay at Varlet Farm too. Thank you so much.
I am chagrined to realise that I neglected to tick a box when I made this comment and had not seen your kind response until today when I was tidying some subscriptions, apologies.
I hope you manage to get to Varlet Farm at some point, it is very comfortable and popular with Western Front regulars and has an extensive library of relevant books. And a small museum in a barn about the ‘iron harvest’, the munitions and debris ploughed out of the fields still.
On one of our visits we talked to the then manager of the B&B (her daughter does it now) about the differences between the cemeteries of the different nations – the German ones are very sombre, the French (in my view) very bleak. she suggested that we visit a nearby Belgian cemetery which we did and found it utterly beautiful – set in beech woodland, laid out in a star formation and many of the headstones had photographs incorporated. There was a small section for the graves of Italian Prisoners of War which were also carefully tended. As we were there in autumn the fallen leaves were glorious. If you visit again, it is worth a visit.
The centenary of my great-uncle’s death was such a moving experience. Some people had brought letters sent back to home, some poems, hand made poppy wreaths – volumes of research. A piper travelled from Canada and played a lament – and did so again in full highland dress at the Menin Gate that evening. One man had, like you, looked at the Battalion diaries and noted the exact time and place the battle had begun. And on that morning he had got up at 4am and found the exact spot in the fields, using google maps so that he could be in the same spot 100 years later. Certainly, for all of us there, not just names on pages. The discovery, when I found a tiny picture of my great-uncle in a newspaper obituary, that it turned out that my then teenage son, his great-great nephew, born seventy years after he died without issue, bears a striking resemblance to him makes him very real to me.
As war rages again in Europe, something I had hoped never to see again in my lifetime – in trenches – again and with big guns, I think it serves us well to remember what loss and devastation war brings. Sorry to be so late with this!
Thank you Glenys, and now it’s my turn to apologise for a late reply – my brain was filled with other work during the summer months. Varlet Farm sounds well worth a visit. I have been to a German cemetery, and I think it’s the black granite headstones that gives them their sombre appearance. Apart from that I’ve only been to BCWG cemeteries, and without exception found them beautiful and tranquil places. If we ever get to Varlet I’ll ask to be directed to the Belgian, French and Italian graves.
At the risk of prolonging this thread too much, the name of the Belgian Cemetery is the ‘Cimitiere Militaire de Houthulst’ and the Italian graves are in the same cemetery at the back. It isn’t far from Ypres, out in the countryside. (Off topic but we noticed some spectacular examples of modern architecture in the houses along that road, too – very interesting, real Grand Designs stuff and with very expensive cars (my son told me!) on their drives!)
The Italians had, apparently, been German prisoners of war who had died (whether in battle or of illness or as forced labour, I do not remember) but the Belgians decided they deserved to be remembered with honour, too. There is a gatehouse with information inside it. I have some glorious photographs of the cemetery but can’t see a way of sharing with you. I hope you get there sometime, so many nations lost so many young men.
Thank you Glenys. It sounds very beautiful. I had my eye on some of the houses just outside the city walls at Ypres too when I was there! As you said in a previous comment on this thread, we now have another senseless war. Senseless on one side, anyway, and vital on the other; and every one of the people whose life was lost meant the world to several others.