The cemeteries of the Western Front are testament to the worst and best of humanity

They represent unbelievable tragedy, but their maintenance helps us remember

Share

And so it was that, last week, 98 years to the day, I was standing in a spinach field in Northern France with my father and aunt, listening to an account of how my grandfather, Lieutenant Richard Millard, aged 19, led his company of 180 men from the Second Border Regiment over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The sun shone, the larks sang, someone a mile or so off blew a First World War whistle. After we had wiped our eyes, and folded up Lt Millard’s trench map our guide, Neil Pudney, a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the conflict, led us out of the spinach field and into a nearby British cemetery. Not to see the grave of a relation, but to simply inhabit its extraordinarily powerful atmosphere.

We spent three days on the Western Front, and visited many such cemeteries. We walked alongside the graves of Newfoundlanders, Maoris, English brothers, Scotsmen, Australians; almost the entire Devonshire regiment. All were astonishing, not only for what they told, but also for the manner in which it was told, thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The War Graves Commission, whose centenary anniversary it is this year, is one of those unheralded but remarkable British institutions. It began in 1914 as the Mobile Ambulance Unit under one Fabian Ware. Quite a chap, was Ware. He felt the dead ought to be recorded and acknowledged, but also remembered. “He was a socialist imperialist,” explains the journalist and current War Graves commissioner Robert Fox. “He decreed that not only should the dead be buried close to where they fell, but that the style of how they were buried should be the same. Irrespective of rank. So the bombardier would be buried next to the brigadier.”

Amazingly, given the chaos and carnage of the First World War, Ware also put a very high consideration on art. With the help of Sir Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum, Ware decided to hire the most eminent artists of the day. He called upon Edwin Lutyens to design the Stone of Remembrance for cemeteries with more than 1,000 graves. Lutyens also designed the individual headstones, which are all identical, and all made from white Portland stone. Ware then called upon the most famous writer of the day, Rudyard Kipling, to compose a suitable line for the graves of the anonymous. “Known Unto God”, Kipling’s line, was carved on tens of thousands of headstones.

Lutyens, who went on to build the vast (yet untriumphal) war memorial at Thiepval, and the Cenotaph, collared two of his distinguished colleagues, Herbert Baker and Reginald Blomfield, to design the structures for each cemetery. And his muse and ally Gertrude Jekyll was to organise the planting, which she decreed must be like an English country garden. All year round. So that British soldiers would be eternally surrounded by the flowers they might have grown up with.

Ware’s vision has not only lasted; it has deepened. Today, as you walk through the cemeteries on the Western Front, and as personal ties fade, they stand as dignified testimonies to the power of art and restrained sentiment, as well as being what George V in 1922 called “a potent advocate of peace”. Thanks in no small part to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they are in perfect condition.

The grass is immaculate; the flowers are blooming as Jekyll ordered them to be; the cool white Portland headstones are in perfect symmetry, bounded by the warm redbrick of the Arts and Crafts style walls of the perimeter. Should it fade, Kipling’s great line is sharpened up by the Commission, which re-engraves 20,000 stones a year at a special workshop in Arras. Anyone studying English art and aesthetics could do worse than go to the cemeteries on the Western Front.

The Commission, which marks 1.7 million graves in 153 countries, announced yesterday it is to put all the records for the fallen, including telegrams and memorabilia, online. But its most lasting work, I think, is the astonishing maintenance of the Western Front cemeteries, as they mutate into something equating a communal expression of humanity.

Giving up on a book is fast becoming a summer tradition

We don’t read our summer books, do we? Slap on the wrist for R Millard, who has optimistically bought The Goldfinch – named and shamed as one of the weighty tomes which we are all going to haul to Cornwall or Tuscany and then ignore for two weeks while we play on Twitter. It is, of course, the fault of things like Twitter, giving delight in 140 characters and also the chance to look at pictures of hedgehogs, which have dented our appetite for 900-pagers.

Hillary Clinton’s memoir is also up there, as is that thing by Piketty which, I admit, I have been tempted by. An American academic (of course) has identified how to spot these unread bestsellers. They are the ones revealed by Kindle as having loads of favoured highlights in the first 50 pages only.

Well, Prof, maybe the first 50 pages are the best ones. As someone who is in the 12.3 per cent of readers estimated to have actually got to the end of the world’s most famously unread bestseller,  Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, I would like to agree with this. Except I can’t remember much about the book bar finishing it.

READ NEXT:
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
Rumours of sexual misconduct can no longer be brushed beneath the carpet
Is Ian Thorpe gay? Does anyone care?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

£20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

Guru Careers: 3D Creative Designer

Up to £26k DOE: Guru Careers: A Junior / Mid-Level 3D Creative Designer is nee...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Website Digital Marketing Manager - Fashion / Retail

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You'll be joining a truly talen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michelle Mone attends the annual Serpentine Gallery summer party at The Serpentine Gallery on June 26, 2013 in London, England.  

Michelle Mone made millions selling bras and now dares to enter the House of Lords - what would Lord Sewel and Alan Sugar say?

Kate Maltby
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall (AFP/Getty)  

Win or lose, Corbyn will set the agenda unless Labour speaks up

Isabel Hardman
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen