Friday, November 07, 2008

Their name liveth for evermore

I see the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have announced they are going to undertake the maintenance required to make sure that the names of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers remembered in their cemeteries and memorials are re-inscribed so that they are not washed away by time and the weather. It's the Forth Bridge of the stonemason's art.

The last time I went to the memorial at Thiepval, which bears the names of 73,357 British and South African men who died on the Somme and have no known grave, a mason was busy adding new names in a corner. He told me that they had to do this kind of thing regularly. This is not because they've found a previously undiscovered body (although that does happen) but because they find that there's been a tiny slip in the usually faultless bureaucracy. A name has been double-counted or the spelling isn't right. This is a different Arthur Smith from the other twenty Arthur Smiths on this panel or maybe they've got his regiment wrong. The dedication to correcting this kind of thing is moving in itself.

The cemeteries of the Somme and Flanders are unique, not just for their vastness. If you haven't gone, you should. An entire generation of young men from Britain (and from what was then the Empire) left home for the first time in their lives, set up camp in one particular part of the countryside and subsequently died. So there they remain. Most of them didn't fight in the traditional sense. They were just there to be shelled, as were the Germans. The books in the entrance to the cemeteries record the names of their parents and their addresses: Railway Cuttings, Primrose Cottage, Sea View, Alma Street, the Meadway, the Vicarage and so on.

Before the First World War there had been no call for memorials on this scale. In 1920 it was agreed, following a public debate, that bodies should not be repatriated and that the so-called Silent Cities be created and maintained at public expense. And they are. How long for is an interesting question.

Meanwhile the dead from Afghanistan and Iraq are flown home. Here's a remarkable piece from the New Yorker in 2004 explaining what happens today when the dead come home.


  1. The British Empire has left its dead scattered all over the world. Wherever you go, you will always find these war cemeteries incredibly well-tended.

    One Sunday morning, in the Eritrean town of Keren, I walked to the British war cemetery, which is on the road out of town. The orderly columns of white stones are the same colour as the surrounding landscape. They are carved with regimental symbols and bear the names and ranks of the soldiers they represent. I always find it sad that the nature in which these men died has forever defined them. Even in death they remain in service; their massed graves standing as a symbolic reminder of the cost of war.

    Among the memorials at Keren I read one inscription that humanised the person it stood for. It read:

    “In memory of my dear husband. Too good a man to be forgotten.”

  2. Just found out recently that my great grandfather (who I can just remember, and who was at The Somme) had a brother. They joined the Lancashire Fusiliers on the same day, just before war broke out. One was sent to France, the other to Gallipoli. One came back, the other didn't.

    The reason we only just found this out is that my great grandfather never talked about it, and so his son, my grandfather, didn't know much about it. Just happened to be mentioned the other day. And all of a sudden there was a family member we never knew existed. Added even more poignancy to last Sunday.