How to read a graveyard: Travels among the dead of the Somme

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The war graves of the Somme are a familiar sight. But look closely at the headstones, says Peter Stanford, and it is possible to decode hidden histories of the 20th century

The poppies are in bloom on the grass verges of the stringy roads that join the stringy villages of the Somme département in northern France. Long, thin, intensively-farmed fields, hardly a hedgerow or tree in sight, sweep away from the road into ridges and then gently subside into hollows like one great undulating carpet runner. But beneath the thick pile of ripening crops and lettuce-green pasture, the rich, muddy soil holds a memory of a different, darker time, far removed from this sunny, early-summer morning and now invisible to the human eye. Were it not for the poppies.

They are standing witness today, just as they did almost 100 years ago, when this land was used not to fill breadbaskets but to house trenches where men fought, died and were buried in numbers that still beggar belief. Almost a century on from the First World War, the poppy remains our symbol of remembrance.

The Somme is, properly, an administrative region of France, named after the river that runs through it. The brown road signs show symbols of ripening corn, the main export, but other associations with the name are so much more powerful. 'The Somme' has forever been appropriated by the series of battles that took place here during the First World War, between July and November 1916, when the British, French and Allied forces engaged the occupying German army. It resulted in one million casualties, a scale of carnage unprecedented in military history. Over 300,000 died in order to seize six miles of territory from German control, a distance that my German car with its English passenger covers today in six minutes.

The other give-away features of this vast, windswept farmscape are the small, green Commonwealth War Graves Commission road signs that point down apparently blank byways towards the cemeteries that contain the fallen. Once war was war and death was a part of it: perished foot soldiers would be dumped in mass graves, the tumuli of the ancient world. But in northern France in 1914, the visionary Sir Fabian Ware pioneered another approach.

He argued that being seen to take better care of the dead would both boost the morale of serving soldiers and comfort the grieving at home. By 1917, his new commission had been established on the twin principles of the equality of treatment of the dead, and the permanence of graves and memorials. No corpses of either officers or soldiers would be brought home from the front. It was fiercely resisted at the time.

Ware's argument was practical. There were simply too many bodies to repatriate. But it also went deeper. He was uneasy with the distinction that had been made in past conflicts between rich and poor, officers whose families could afford the cost of transporting their bodies home, and foot soldiers left behind in mass graves and soon forgotten by all but their stricken families who had no tombstone to visit. By 1923, 4,000 rectangular headstones, identical in size whatever the dead soldier's rank, religion, and family background, were being sent each week to France. Each was hand-carved with the individual's details. The work continued right up to the outbreak of a second conflict in 1939.

Ihave ended up in the village of Ayette by accident, inadvertently wandering off the main tourist route between the various large Commonwealth War Graves sites. Searching for a sign to direct me back on to the main road to one of their number at Thiepval, I spot a familiar green Commonwealth War Graves marker, pointing down a farm track into some woods. It describes it as an Indian and Chinese cemetery. Curiosity compels me to turn in.

The potholes aren't as deep as they first appear as I plunge into a tunnel of trees. I am beginning to suspect I have been sidetracked by a rogue sign, spun round by rural vandals, when suddenly I emerge into a clearing with a lazy rectangle of familiar gravestones, fronted by a bed of brilliant white roses. This is a Commonwealth War Cemetery, of standard design and uniformly high quality of maintenance, but in miniature, with just 80 graves. It is hidden away in this well-upholstered fold of land and apparently forgotten by all except the gardeners who tend it.

At its centre, as everywhere else, is Edwin Lutyens' Stone of Remembrance, austere and classical, looking very like an altar in a church, but deliberately stripped of any overt reference to Christianity, or triumphalism. Missing for once, though, is its usual partner, Reginald Blomfield's Cross of Sacrifice, a sword so positioned on its plinth that it becomes, for those with eyes to see it that way, a cross.

It is a rare exception to the Commission's rule of treating all the same, made either for reasons of space or, more likely, because everyone buried here was non-Christian. These Indian and Chinese civilian labourers, recruited from the other side of the world to maintain the trenches and carry supplies to the front, worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day. They lived in separate camps from the troops, were sent to separate hospitals when they were wounded, and – on the evidence of what lies before me – were buried separately. Yet, in death, the blueprint of all Commonwealth War Graves integrates them into the wider sacrifice. In this hidden sacred grove, as elemental and eternal as any Neolithic barrow, any lingering doubts I have about the power of landscape to console evaporate.

Ware's model was a very particular response to the scale of the slaughter on the Somme. What, though, of the French? Notre Dame de Lorette is the French National Memorial, an hour's drive from the Channel coast. Perched on the crest of a 185m-high ridge north of Arras, it is one of six 'Necropole Nationale' run not by a commission but directly by the Ministry of Defence. It stands where tens of thousands of lives were snuffed out in the 12 months up to October 1915 as the Allied forces crawled, inch by deadly inch, up its muddy slopes and the Germans troops at the top pushed them back down.

Today, it is a slash of elegantly cultivated countryside that rises above and apart from all that surrounds it, last resting place of over 40,000, solemn and dignified. At its centre is an ornate neo-Byzantine church, but what catches my eye more is the 52m-high lighthouse in front of it, constructed in the same pale, almost death-like stone as the basilica, a green lightning conductor running up its side to the lantern that tops it, with a revolving beam that can be seen from 70km away.

The practice of leaving a light on graves is an ancient one, to ward off the dark, evil spirits, or to light a path to the next life, but this tower goes further – in more than one way. This cemetery is not content just to be, to sit amid the landscape of life. It wants to draw people to it, to remind them as they close their curtains and blinds at night, or drive along the network of local roads, that it is here. And lighthouse beams, of course, also convey a warning, not in this case to steer clear, but rather to navigate away from the carnage of war.

Where the Commonwealth graveyards have no custodians permanently on site, here I am greeted by two hommes en beret, their distinctive headgear complemented by smart blazers and shiny shoes. They are part of a corps of volunteers who all commit to come at least one day each year to guard the fallen.

That permanent presence is not the only variation in approach here. The row after row of graves may be the same, but while there is no Union Jack or mention of "King and Country" allowed in the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, the French tricolour is here much in evidence (and not just on the honour guards' armbands). And each gravestone includes the words "morte pour la patrie" – "died for the homeland". It is one small step from "patrie" to patriotism and another uneasy few to nationalism, the cause of many a conflict, but perhaps that is to lose something in translation.

This is, after all, a cemetery for Frenchmen on French soil, not as in the case of the Commonwealth graves, a corner of a foreign field. And France is also a country where, despite the separation of church and state, the rituals of Christianity are the default position of officialdom. So the gravestones – save for in the separate Jewish and Muslim sections on the periphery – are all mass-produced stone crosses with a laminated plaque screwed on to include individual details. The scales here on this vast 13-hectare site are weighed more towards the collective than the individual.

But there is another story to tell, too. "The soldiers' graves", reads an engraving at the entrance to Neuville-Saint-Vaast War Cemetery, a few miles south of Notre Dame de Lorette, "are the greatest preachers of peace". Travelling around this Dead Sea of arrested lives, the sentiment has become familiar, but here the line comes from Albert Schweitzer, a German-born Nobel laureate. A doctor, missionary and ethicist, he won the Nobel Prize in 1952 for his efforts to set out and define a philosophy which is best-remembered by the phrase "reverence for life" but which – in the context of graveyards recalling the human toll of the two wars through which he lived – is better summed up as highlighting the determination to survive as the human instinct that unites us above any other. It led Schweitzer to lecture extensively on "the problem of peace", and also to his connection with this cemetery.

Unlike the Commonwealth cemeteries or the French National Memorial, Neuville-Saint-Vaast hides its light under a bushel. That is because it is the largest German war cemetery in France: 44,833 of the vanquished are buried here. Though first established in 1919 by the French authorities as a 'collection site', in the victors' language, it was later passed to a private German charity which in 1979 arranged for it to be landscaped and, in 1983, finally opened to the public. That is a delay of almost 70 years after the first soldier it contains was killed. Until then, it was evidently considered too sensitive, as if the German war dead must simply be forgotten.

There is a simple brick building at the entrance. "Peace to men of good will", reads the inscription on a pink-coloured cross. The architecture is as functional and stark as the crosses that stretch out, in rows, under pines trees and up a gentle slope as far as I can see. Each one is made of greyish-black metal, the colour of mourning rather than the white of hope in the Commonwealth graveyards, and each contains four names, two on either arm.

How should the Germans remember their dead? Since the Second World War, a modern Germany has emerged which for many years has concentrated only on looking forward rather than back. Yet, there are still grieving German families. Their dead sons and grandsons may have volunteered, or they may have been conscripted. They may have agreed with the Kaiser or National Socialism, but equally they may have dissented but still felt they had no option other than fight. A handful of German graves in Commonwealth cemeteries, and a few more in corners of churchyards didn't seem quite adequate, when so many had gone unrecorded, unmarked but, somewhere, not forgotten.

There are, the experts tell us, stages to our grieving. And there are, as the world seeks to rebuild itself after war, stages to the re-establishment of trust and mutual co-operation between nations. I suspect, walking along between these iron crosses, the rows without even the balm of flowers and bushes, that the two processes did not run in tandem here. German families yearned for a spot to mourn their dead long before governments in the countries that had defeated the Kaiser and Hitler felt able to grant it. There remains a deep-rooted antipathy in Britain, for instance, to Germans. Scratch the surface and it still has the power to flare up.

Which means it is a different experience being British and being in this graveyard. There is still the sense of the scale of the sacrifice, the decimation of a whole generation of young men, the effort to try and imagine lives and hopes and expectations all obliterated. If every man buried here suddenly rose from the dead, they would fill a football stadium. But here in particular there can be none of the mitigation to be found elsewhere on my travels, in the thought that their lives defeated something that needed defeating, that they won for those who came after a liberty, a freedom, a choice. This is a cemetery with a plain, uncomplicated sermon to preach about the wastage caused by war, a rebuke to the idea that any philosophy, any leader, can think his or her views and plans so powerful, so right, that they have to be imposed on others by conquest.

An extract from 'How to Read a Graveyard: Journeys in the Company of the Dead' by Peter Stanford, published by Bloomsbury on Thursday at £16.99

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