Kipling finds the words

In direct contrast to American practice, repatriation was not an option for British and Commonwealth dead. Even as the First World War raged, thoughts turned to the provision of permanent cemeteries and memorials and in 1917 the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was formed by Royal Charter.13 The first director of the Commission was Fabian Ware. This unassuming yet remarkable man set the great project in motion, establishing guiding principles that have stood the test of time. Ironically, its task for the First World War was officially completed in July, 1938 with the unveiling of the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux by King George VI, a year before the outbreak of the Second World War. In the crucial matter of design, Fabian Ware was ably supported by the horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll and the architect Edwin Lutyens. Together these gifted individuals tried to ensure that each cemetery would be reminiscent of an English country garden or park.

Death is the great leveller. In acceptance of the basic tenet that all of the deceased should receive equal honour, irrespective of military and civil rank, it was decided, despite some opposition from relatives of fallen officers, that all grave markers in British and Commonwealth cemeteries should be identical in form. The typical linear ordering in rows and columns, as at Vauxbuin (Figs. 10 and 18) serves to remind the visitor that long ago these soldiers lined up on parade with pride in their regiment and calling. The headstones are Portland stone, two feet eight inches high, large enough to carry a regimental or service badge and details such as name, rank and date of death. A touching personal message (chosen and paid for at a cost of three pennies per letter by British next-of-kin) often appears at the foot of the stone. In some cases the inscriptions are seen to have faded as a result of frost damage, a reminder that the cemeteries require continuous maintenance. Many cemeteries have graves containing the remains of ‘unknown’ soldiers and a memorial to those who finally entered military records as ‘missing’.

Fig. 18 – Vauxbuin cemetery, near Soissons: section with 273 British and 4,898 French graves.

Rudyard Kipling was regarded as ‘the soldiers’ poet’ and it was natural for him to be asked to join the Commission. He served as its literary adviser for eighteen years and contributed or approved the resonant phrases, known to millions, that are associated with British military cemeteries. They include:

  • Their Name Liveth for Evermore (derived from the Book of Ecclesiasticus)
  • Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out (for graves lost during the War: Ecclesiasticus)
  • A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God (for an unidentified soldier)
  • Cross of Sacrifice (a monumental cross bearing a crusader’s bronze sword)
  • Stone of Remembrance (an altar stone acceptable to all faiths)

After the First World War, a peaceable army of more than 1,300 gardeners descended on a landscape of devastation and began to establish cemeteries in the form that we see today. Many were war veterans, many had trained in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London. Very often they decided to settle in France, raising families and working lifelong in the cemeteries. To them we owe the green lawns and paths, the variety of trees, the polyantha roses and small perennials, plants from overseas and the ambience of an English garden.

  1. Rose E. B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade: a Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War (London: Battle of Britain Prints International Ltd., 1994) 168: ISBN 0 900913 86 X. []