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.