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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home