As a regular visitor to the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries of the Western Front, I am asked on many occasions about the details found on the headstones of the fallen. For example, how the information is collated and also questions regarding the headstones themselves.
Most Commonwealth War Grave headstones are made of Portland Stone. This is a soft stone and mainly white in colour however, on occasion the Commission have used a red Portland stone, which, in my humble opinion, is not as nice. Portland stone tends to weather and, over the years, some of the names inscribed on them have faded. Consequently the CWGC are now re-engraving the details on these headstones which takes approximately 30 minutes to carry out, per headstone.
Headstones that are no longer physically intact, or where the inscription is too badly worn, are now being replaced. The CWGC has a rolling replacement programme and around 22,000 headstones are replaced every year. The new headstones are no longer Portland stone. The new stone comes from Italy and is called Botticino which is a type of limestone that resembles marble. Every two to three years the headstones are sprayed with a masonry biocide which keeps the stone free from algae and lichen.
Depending on local conditions, and the composition of the soil, it is sometimes necessary for the CWGC to move away from the headstone’s standard design. In Turkey (Gallipoli) the Commission uses stone faced pedestal markers instead of the normal headstones. At Wimereux Communal Cemetery, France, the headstones lie flat on top of the graves. This is because of the sandy nature of the soil. Buried in this particular cemetery is Lt Col John McCrae who wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.
Occasionally you will see a different design of headstone. Polish and Czech soldiers who served in WW2 have a notably different style. But the one difference that attracts the most questions is the headstones that have clipped corners. These are used for service men and women who do not qualify for war grave status for example casualties who died outside the qualifying period (04.08.14 to 31.08.21 for WW1 or 03.09.39 to 31.12.47 for WW2). They are sometimes referred to incorrectly as ‘Non-Combatant’ headstones.
Now to the inscriptions on the headstones. The type faced used was designed by MacDonald Gill and is all in upper case. Each stone contains a regimental cap badge or national emblem. The headstone would then contain as much information about the soldier buried underneath it as possible some of which would have been provided by the family. The details will include rank, name (either the Christian name in full or just initials), unit, date of death, if known, and age. This would all be inscribed above a religious symbol, in most cases a cross. This is usually a plain Latin cross but sometimes for esthetical reasons a larger cross is carved with the regimental badge inside it. Other religious symbols are used, for example Jews have the Star of David and there are Hindu and Muslim graves with the appropriate religious symbol and text. The symbol is sometimes omitted from the headstone if the deceased is known to be an atheist. For Victoria Cross recipients the regimental cap badge is supplemented by the carving of the Victoria Cross emblem. This is placed where the religious symbol would be.
The headstones of unidentified casualties list only the details that could be gathered from the body by the grave registration unit. An epitaph written by Rudyard Kipling appears on the headstone and reads “A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God”.
In some cases the exact position of a grave in a cemetery has been lost. In this case a headstone is placed around the edge of the cemetery with the casualties details inscribed upon it. However, across the top, the words “Believed to be buried in the cemetery” or “Believed to be buried near this spot”.
At the bottom of the headstone is space for a personal message. The message had to be composed from a mere 66 characters including spaces. Each character used cost the family 3½d. A nice epitaph could in effect cost a family member half a year’s salary.
The one thing that you must bear in mind when you look at the epitaphs on these stone memorials is that they use a language that most of us do not speak anymore. This language creates allusions and references that were familiar to everyone at the time of the Great War, 100 years ago. For example “Duty nobly done” acknowledges King George’s letter to the British Expeditionary Force upon its departure for France – “Duty is the watchword and I know your duty will be nobly done”. Or “The hours I have spent with you dear heart are as a string of pearls to me” from the Edwardian best seller ‘The Rosary’ written by Florence L Barclay.
I hope I’ve answered some of the obvious questions regarding the Commonwealth War Grave headstones and gives you something to think about upon your next visit to a cemetery. But above all else as you walk these hallowed grounds “Remember them”.
Lest we Forget