Memories Along the Western Front by Brian Johnson
In my previous article (Edition 105) I explained how to research family members who fought, and perhaps died, in the Great War. Continuing with this theme this article is taking a look at some of the cemeteries, graves and memorials along the Western Front where many of us may have relatives who fought, died and were buried.
To walk or drive around this area today it is so quiet and peaceful, with perhaps just a skylark breaking the silence, it can be so difficult to imagine the carnage of the Great War, the noise, the smell, the suffering and the deaths of so many – on both sides.
The Western Front was 440 miles long and stretched from the North Sea coast near to Ostend down to the Swiss border. Along this line there are 1,200 British and Commonwealth war cemeteries, all looked after and kept in immaculate condition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Some of the cemeteries have just a few graves, but many have several thousands, the largest being the Tyne Cot Cemetery which has 11,956 graves, of which 8,369 are unidentified soldiers. On the wall panels are the names of a further 35,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.
In planning the cemeteries the CWGC decided each cemetery would have an iron gate, a brick or stone wall, or hedge, no more than 3 feet high with the name of the cemetery carved onto the wall or gatepost. If there were more than 40 graves in the cemetery there would also be a Cross of Sacrifice, inlaid with a bronze crusader’s sword. This cross would vary in height so it would always look in proportion to the size of the cemetery. If there were more than a thousand graves there would also be a Stone of Remembrance, this would always be exactly 12 ft long and mounted on three steps, the first and third being twice the width of the second. This would have no religious symbols on it as it represented all men of all faiths and those of no faith at all. The words suggested by Rudyard Kipling ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’ are carved on both sides. All the cemeteries are grassed and contain typical English garden flowers and plants, a number of cemeteries also have a variety of red rose named ‘Remembrance’ that look especially vibrant against the white Portland stone of the graves.
As you walk amongst the graves you will see the badges of the regiments, name, number, rank, date of death and usually age of the soldier. You may also see some unusual ones such as ‘Friends Ambulance Corps’, often conscientious objectors who refused to enlist to kill but still wanted to ‘do their bit’. Some may simply say ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ with the inscription ‘Known Unto God’
As you drive through the typical French countryside you will often see a stone Cross of Sacrifice in the distance with a small stone wall around it. This was probably the site of a small field hospital or dressing station where the dead would be simply carried outside and buried. Spare a thought for those who have lay there through many winters and summers. Thousands pass by but very few stop to visit.
After the war ended the majority of the trenches and the thousands of shell holes where so many died were filled in and the land returned to agriculture, but as you walk or drive around this area today there are still many other reminders of this terrible conflict, there are still many shell holes and craters if you know where to look. Each year during the ploughing season the ‘Iron Harvest’ still brings to the surface many tonnes of unexploded shells, mortars and grenades. The farmers calmly (and carefully) stack them at the side of the road to be collected by the French and Belgian authorities, to be disposed of in controlled conditions. Since the end of the Great War over 350 people have died, mostly farmers, soldiers or construction workers, through these unpredictable pieces of corroded hardware. Some shells don’t need to explode to cause danger though, some have been found to be leaking liquid mustard gas.
Other items can also be often found if you walk the fields, uniform buttons, rifle barrels, barbed wire and rusted helmets, to name just a few.
Soldiers remains are also regularly found and each one given a full military burial at one of the CWGC Cemeteries but there are still many thousands that still lie out in the fields and will perhaps never be found.
Besides the CWGC cemeteries along the Western Front there are also many monuments and memorials to the fallen, the largest being Edwin Lutyens’ Theipval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Standing 140 feet high on 16 piers it has the largest number of commemorations of any memorial in the world. There are 72,000 names on the panels around the piers, including one of Leicestershire’s Victoria Cross recipients Billy Buckingham from Countesthorpe Cottage Homes. The many arches through the memorial represent the void left in so many families by husbands, fathers, sons and brothers who never came home. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme 57,000 British soldiers died, at the height of the battle we were losing a further 5,000 lives per month.
The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, is where the Last Post Ceremony is performed at 8pm every evening throughout the
year, it was designed by Reginald Blomfield and contains the names of 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient and have no known graves. Despite the huge size of this memorial there was still not enough room for the entire list of those with no known graves so the list continues with a further 35,000 names on the wall panels at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
These are just two of the many memorials along the Western Front, each one with a story to tell. Others include the beautiful South African Memorial at Delville Wood and the massive Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
The Leicestershire and Rutland Family History Society organise coach trips to areas of the Western front each year. On previous trips we have visited many interesting memorials and graves including the graves of Captain John Lauder at Ovillers, son of Sir Harry Lauder who after visiting his grave wrote the song ‘Keep Right onto the End of the Road’. We have also visited the grave of Raymond Asquith, son of the Prime Minister, John Kipling, the son of Rudyard Kipling and John McCrea, famous for the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written after seeing the growing number of wooden crosses outside the field hospital where he was tending to the injured and dying.
The Leicestershire and Rutland Family History Society often have open days and WW1 themed open days at their Research Centre at Pilot House in King Street Leicester to assist you in finding your WW1 Heroes or general family history enquiries. These open days are usually publicised in the local press, on BBC Radio Leicester and the society’s website. www.lrfhs.org.uk