A Question of Headstones

The white Portland Stone British military headstone that can be seen in CWGC cemeteries across Europe and elsewhere has entered iconic architectural status, not least because of the genius of the simple curvature to the top of each headstone.  I don’t know whether you’ve ever considered it, but British military cemeteries might have looked quite different had an alternate design been chosen.

So here are a few that were considered and rejected.

I quite like the double headstone on the right – again, the curve –  and one wonders whether cost was the prime reason that this way of remembering two soldiers buried together was not chosen.  Or perhaps it was because it takes up twice the space.  You can see how it would have fitted in with the other designs on this page in the drawing of the row at the bottom.

Interesting that most state the generic cause of death, which, if you consider it, would surely have proven an administrative impossibility had one of these designs been chosen.

If you have never read the report entitled ‘War Graves; How the Cemeteries Abroad will be Designed’, commissioned in late 1917 by Fabien Ware, founder of the Graves Registration Commission in 1915 (which became the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917, and is now the CWGC) and presented in November 1918 by Sir Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, then here’s your chance: The Kenyon Report.

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24 Responses to A Question of Headstones

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    Thank you, Magicfingers, for providing us readers with an enlightening insight to the formation of CWGC Cemeteries. The care and thoroughness to which considerations were given and recommendations made back in 1918 are a credit to Lieut-Colonel Sir Frederic Kenyon and Major-General Fabien Ware who commissioned the study and Report.

    I join in commending readers open and read your link to “The Kenyon Report”.

    Apart from extending knowledge and answering some long-held back of mind questions concerning cemetery layout, I found the dedication to respecting our war dead most comforting.

    As always, another amazing post from you – you definitely must write a book

    • Magicfingers says:

      So people tell me – maybe there’ll be a book one day. The Kenyon Report is a must to understand how things became the way they are. Glad you found it enlightening and comforting. Cheers Sid.

  2. Daisy says:

    I am always amazed by the number of names on Memorials to the Missing and the thousands of ‘Known Unto God’ headstones of unidentified soldiers.
    If the Graves Registration Commission was founded in 1915 and there were detailed reports in 1917 why are there so many unidentified soldiers ‘Known Unto God’?
    I believe it has a lot to do with bad administration and lack of foresight. The 1917 report states isolated graves will be moved to allow French farming cultivation.
    My example is this; In 2015 I decided to research all Collingwood Football Cub players killed in WW1. There were 8 of them. One is buried in Sierra Leone dying of the Spanish Flu en route to Europe in 1918. One was killed at Gallipoli on 25 April and body never recovered and his name is on the Lone Pine Memorial to the missing.
    One buried in Belgium, 3 are buried in France and one is in Melbourne dying a short time after arriving back in Australia.
    The last one from the Australian 28th battalion has his name on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
    I believe his name shouldn’t be there but he should have a proper grave at Crucifix Corner Cemetery just outside Villers-Bretonneux.
    Further research found he was buried near the Villers-Bretonneux to Warfusee road on 8 August 1918 close to where he was killed by a shell along with 2 mates . The 21 bodies in this isolated cemetery were moved in the early 1920s to Crucifix Corner Cemetery. The 3 headstones say ‘A Soldier of the Great War 28th Battalion Australian Infantry Known Unto God’.
    The list of his Personal Belongings showed 3 Identity Discs sent to his mother. Why in 1918 would they remove 3 identity discs? Why didn’t the Graves Registration Commission from 1915 come up with some kind of system or order for burials in the field? If soldiers had 3 dog-tags why couldn’t one be left with the body, especially the aluminium tags? There wouldn’t be some many ‘Known Unto God’…

    • Nick kilner says:

      Hi Daisy. It’s very unfortunate that your research has lead to, I would say a dead end, but that seems disrespectful, so I will say an unsatisfactory conclusion. I can think of a couple of scenarios that may have lead to this situation. Firstly, that two of his tags were removed during the original burial, one for official use and the other to be sent home. The third being removed during his subsequent exhumation and the original wooden cross being sent with the body for identification at the reburial. After a few miles of bouncing around in the back of a wagon, it’s not hard to imagine who they would have become separated.
      Secondly, it’s possible that they felt there was no need for the body to have a tag once identified for burial, and so if all three were on a chain together they were all taken in one go. When he was originally buried they would not have considered the possibility of reburial elsewhere and so the body would not need a tag of its own.
      It’s certainly something that with hindsight could have been done differently, but given the circumstances I think we have to accept that they were doing the best they could.

  3. Nigel Shuttleworth says:

    Thanks Magicfingers, another fascinating post . . . all I can say is that that CWG did choose the right headstones thank goodness! Daisy, I don’t think it was a case of maladministration in identifying the dead. Often it was just a question that the bodies were so badly blown apart for instance in the case of a heavy shell exploding in a trench amongst a group of soldiers, that it was impossible to identify any human remains. Also positions would change from one battle to the next and the dead had to be left in abandoned trenches or worse in no man’s land. When one hears stories of corpses actually being built into the trench parapet and men hanging their coats on a protruding leg then it is very surprising how many they did manage to identify.

    • Daisy says:

      Hello Nigel and Magicfingers,
      Not all bodies were badly blown apart. My 28th Battalion men were indentifiable and in 3 separate graves with wooden crosses above. They were in a decent enough condition to be recognised as Australian 28th Battalion men in the early ’20s even though the crosses must have had disappeared. The ground this cemetery was located in was not fought over again after August 1918. Why send 3 identity discs to the mother? Leave one with the body… simple. If the bodies were left in abandoned trenches or no mans land what’s the issue with leaving some kind of identification?
      I’m very keen to read ‘Missing in Action’ by Marianne van Velzen, probably the only book to look at the problem?

    • Daisy says:

      Hello Nigel and Magicfingers,
      Not all bodies were badly blown apart. My 28th Battalion men were indentifiable and put in 3 separate graves with wooden crosses above. They were in a decent enough condition in the early ’20s to be recognised as Australian 28th Battalion men even though the crosses must have disappeared. The ground this cemetery was located in was not fought over again after August 1918. Why send 3 identity discs to the mother? Leave one with the body… simple. If the bodies were left in abandoned trenches or no mans land what’s the issue with leaving some kind of identification?
      I’m very keen to read ‘Missing in Action’ by Marianne van Velzen, maybe the only book to look at the problem? Not sure, haven’t read it yet…
      I have read many stories of well meaning mates and chaplins taking all identity off bodies prior to burial. Poor leadership I believe…

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks Nigel! 100% in agreement that they chose the right one.

  4. Sid from Down Under says:

    Hi Daisy,

    I tip me hat to your passion for those who gave their lives from your area of interest. Many mistakes were made in the Great War and subsequent conflicts. As I understand, WW1 estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths – Magicfingers can likely tell us how many military deaths.

    Military officialdom would have known every single serving soldier. But the shear number and enormous range of cause of deaths would have been a logistical nightmare. I believe they did a magnificent job identifying and dignifying as many as possible who were killed under these widely varying circumstances.

    Your comment about the three tags is truly valid but in the overall scheme of things we must accept everything possible would have been done to identify, respect and honour those who gave the supreme sacrifice.

    A measure of our civilian appreciation is 100 years and generations later we continue to celebrate “Lest We Forget” including those “unknown” souls.

    • Daisy says:

      Beautiful story John, I bet the Gentleman was impressed…
      I agree the CWGC does a fantastic job Sid and every cemetery or memorial I have visited is in perfect order, as proven by the work of Magicfingers…
      From the CWGC website they state by 1918 there were 587,000 graves identified but 559,000 with no known grave, basically 50%. The Commission’s principles first line says ‘Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial.’ Is 50% with a name on a headstone a reasonable result? Hmmm.
      Sir Fabian Webb started recording and caring for graves and in 1915 this became the Graves Registration Commission. During 4 years of the war producing corpses I just think Sir Fabian Webb should have suggested an identification process to be used during field burials… perhaps he did?
      Friends of mine live on the Somme and some years ago found a Canadian soldier’s body at Pozieres who was identified only by the shell ring aluminium trench art bracelet he wore with a maple leaf, his unit and his initials engraved. The Canadian Government arranged a full military funeral and flew all members of the family to France. My friend said the family was so happy their relative had finally been found. His loss had affected generations of the family for almost 100 years. I have seen the saddest letters in soldier’s service records from mothers pleading for information on where is her son? Many years after the end of the war!
      Anybody read ‘Remembering the Fallen of the First World War’?

      • Nick kilner says:

        Hi Daisy. I think when looking at the numbers it’s easy to forget that apart from those many thousands lost to shellfire, whereby nothing was left to recover, bodies were also laid on the battlefield for months, even years. They would eaten by rats and flies, and be blown hither and thither by artillery fire, many being buried in the process. The small cemetery at sunken lane (Beaumont Hamel) contains several headstones inscribed ‘known unto god’, not through any careless act, but because after the failed attack the bodies were unrecoverable until the ground was finally taken in 1918. By then there there would simply have been very little left to identify. I read an article some time ago which stated that the flies were sometimes so bad in the height of summer that the maggots could strip a corpse to the bone in two days. Offensive mining also killed many thousands, most of whom will have been buried alive or torn assunder. The mines fired at Messines were estimated to have killed 10,000 German in a single day, most of whom still lie buried beneath the soil. That went on up and down the front, at times on a daily basis (albeit not on the same scale), for most of the war. And youve only got to look at Passhendale to see how bodies can disappear into the mud. It’s simply not the case that bodies were always locatable, recoverable and in an identifiable state. I can understand your frustration, but I think looking at it purely from a numbers point of view is perhaps somewhat misleading.

        • Daisy says:

          Hello Nick and Magicfingers,
          I love this site as it gives me a chance to discuss my military history obsession as there is little chance to do so in Indonesia. My wife’s eyes instantly glaze over…
          Yes, many bodies were pulverised and disappeared completely and a lot were not recoverable but I guess that also means many could have been… like my 3 mates from the Australian 28th battalion. Locatable, identifiable and known to be from the 28th Battalion but nothing to realise their names.
          Our very own Magicfingers unwittingly proved in 2016 what could have been possible with his discovery at Dantzig Alley British of the little metal name tag from Private Cecil Carrick Wotton’s grave cross which Magicfingers figures was in place in 1921 and yet was still in perfect condition when found 95 years later. I still don’t understand why over 4 years of the war somebody in military officialdom couldn’t come up with something similar to be placed with a body, whether a skeleton or otherwise, to identify the remains? Englishman John Parr was buried in August 1914 but bodies were unidentifiable in 1918? Doesn’t make sense to me…

          • Nick kilner says:

            Hi Daisy. I don’t disagree at all. I’m sure, as I said in my initial post, that things could have been done differently. I would however add that clearly in the vast majority of cases, where a body had been recovered, identified and left where it was originally buried, the system they had in place worked. Identifying almost 600,000 bodies was surely no mean feat.
            It’s interesting that you mention the Dantzig alley post, as it was that which prompted my first hypothesis. As I’m sure you’ll remember, Pvt C.C. Wotton had been moved to Dantzig alley cemetery from Montauban cemetery, and I suspect that the cross with identifying tag which Magicfingers found, had travelled with him from there.
            I can’t be certain of course, but I strongly suspect that a second dog tag was removed on site when bodies were exhumed, as proof of exhumation. In the case of many soldiers remains, this would have left the body with no identification, which is why I suspect that the crosses accompanied the bodies to their place of reinternmemt. This is of course pure speculation on my part, but would seem a very plausible scenario. The problem being that it would be easy for cross and body to become separated during transport. It would be interesting to see some statistics on the number of bodies that were reinterred, and the percentage of those who were subsequently reburied as unknown soldiers. My suspicion is that the figure would be a relatively high percentage. The fact that this happened to the Australians you were tracing highlights that there was clearly something going wrong in the process of moving the bodies from one site to another.
            Also, exhuming bodies that had only been in the ground a few months must have been incredibly grim work in itself, the idea of rummaging about in a rotting corpse looking for dog tags is unimaginable. Is it therefore possible that they sometimes didn’t look too hard? You couldn’t rule it out, or indeed blame them. I’m guessing most of this gruesome work was carried out by the Chinese labour corp, who set about clearing the battlefields after the war. Would they have taken as much care over the work as soldiers exhuming bodies of their fallen comrades would have? Possibly not. I’m sure to them it was just a job to be gotten on with, and a very unpleasant one at that. Again, I wouldn’t hold that against them, it must have been pretty horrific and I suspect many died from disease as a result of the work they were doing.
            The other thing the Dantzig ally post highlights is of course the ‘lost cemeteries’, where still more of the missing lie.
            Sorry, bit of a rambling post but I think it’s a really interesting discussion 🙂

          • Daisy says:

            G’day Nick,
            Yes, over half a million bodies would have been a daunting job but on the other hand a lot of practice to get it right after4 years! Private Wotton’s system worked but in 1918 my 28th Battalion didn’t and he had3 identification tags. Wotton was killed late in 1916 and reinterred the middle of 1919, almost 3 years later somehow was still identified, probably by the cross?
            I agree the exhumation business would have been ghastly and few would have volunteered.
            Anyway, I guess we pay our respects to each and every one of them, no matter where they lie.

          • Nick kilner says:

            I’m not sure how or why I ended up putting quite so many comma’s into that post, punctuation overload! I guess that’ll teach me to reread what I’ve written before posting hahaha

      • Glenn Kerr says:

        Hi Daisy. Wow great exchanges of information. Do you recall the name of the Canadian soldier? Was it David Carlson? And are you able to put me in touch with your friends on the Somme. I am guessing I may know them as I spend a great deal of time exploring there. I am currently working on some research regarding recently found soldiers of the Great War. Thank you.

        Glenn

        • Daisy says:

          Hi Glenn,
          The Canadian soldier is David John Carlson and the couple who found him are Diane and Vic Piuk. They are happy for you to contact them… lesalouettes2003@yahoo.co.uk
          Interesting research regarding found soldiers of the Great War, just Canadians? I recently attended the burial of 2 Australians found at Bullecourt.
          Regards,
          Daisy

  5. John in Canada says:

    A story of things done right, with a right heart. In my last career, I was visited by an elderly gent who had heard of my interest in military history. He brought a photo album of his then recent visit to the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery in Ortona, Italy, where his brother rests. His brother fell in the battle to liberate the town in the days around Christmas 1943. In the photos of the grave marker I noticed a distinct front to back crack in the stone that went down into the stone about 8 inches from the top middle. At closing time (EST) I sent an email to the CWGC Director for the Central Region in Rome describing the fault. At opening 9am the next day I already had an email reply waiting for me from the Director stating that he had dispatched an engineer to inspect the marker. About a week later a second email stating that the stone had been replaced. Not ordered replaced …. replaced. It was an honour to be able to pass the news of that individual care of his brother, one of our fallen, on to the Gentleman.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Fabulous story John. And goes to show that things can move quickly if the right people are involved. As for the remaining comments here (Sid, Daisy, Nick), for once I am just going to take a back seat and just enjoy reading your comments. ‘Tis an interesting conversation.

  6. Jim Allen says:

    M. You may like to know that the CWGC has added a headstone during October 2018 within St Mary’s Churchyard, Byfleet. It commemorates Guardsman B E Booker, MM, who died in 1940.

    This is the third CWGC headstone in the churchyard, one of which is not the conventional memorial, but a cross on a plinth.

    • Magicfingers says:

      How very interesting. And good to hear. Good to hear from you too Jim, and thanks ever so. I shall pop in next time I am passing. Do we know anything about him, in particularly why he died and when he won the MM?

  7. Magicfingers says:

    There are some interesting studies that have been done on the clearing of the dead that I could use at some point to write a proper post about exactly what you have been discussing. Here’s a taster: ‘Often have I picked up the remains of a fine brave man on a shovel. Just a little heap of bones and maggots to be carried to the common burial place. Numerous bodies were found lying submerged in the water in shell holes and mine craters; bodies that seemed quite whole, but which became like huge masses of white, slimy chalk when we handled them. I shuddered as my hands, covered in soft flesh and slime, moved about in search of the disc, and I have had to pull bodies to pieces in order that they should not be buried unknown. It was very painful to have to bury the unknown.’

  8. Sid from Down Under says:

    Magicfingers, you have encapsulated it all – the horrors of War and those brave dedicated teams who did their best to find, identify and give a respectful burial to those of the likes you so gruesomely but correctly describe. For many obvious reasons it would have been impossible to identify and record every single person killed. Hence the Eternal Flame of Remembrance for all who fell on battle fields including the unknown.

    On another note – leading up to the Armistice Centenary a truly dedicated lady named Shannon Lovelady, with the help of 70 volunteers, over the last three years carried out amazing research of Western Australians killed in WW1 – 158 missing names found but please check out the following web-link – this would surely be multiplied many-fold for records on the fields of Flanders and other areas of Great War battlefields. No matter where, one hundred years later bodies are being found and for this we should all be eternally grateful.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-04/historian-records-missing-names-of-wa-wwi-western-front-fallen/10333822

  9. Daisy says:

    Hello Magicfingers,
    I would be very interested to read one of your posts on this subject particularly the interesting studies you mention.
    ‘I shuddered as my hands, covered in soft flesh and slime, moved about in search of the disc’, I wonder if the identification disc was found and the ‘huge mass of white, slimy chalk’ was buried in a grave with a name for the family to grieve over?
    Look forward to your post Magicfingers.
    Keep up the good work,
    Daisy.

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