There is one aspect of British military headstones that we have yet to consider, and that is the personal inscriptions sometimes to be found at their base. The majority of headstones have no personal inscription, but a significant number do, and as, for some pilgrims, these are the most poignant aspect of a cemetery visit, it would be remiss of me to ignore them.
One simple reason why most headstones do not include a personal inscription is that there was a charge, per letter, for the privilege, and after the deprivations of the war years, I presume many people simply could not afford such extravagance – in 1920 a labourer might earn as little as fourteen shillings per week (today, the relatives of newly discovered and identified Great War casualties are offered the same for free). The two Imperial War Graves Commission forms above show seventeen identified men buried in Pond Farm Cemetery of whom only seven have a personal inscription on their headstones, as can be seen on the Comprehensive Report B Headstone Personal Inscriptions form on the right, where you will also find, detailed in the far right column, the cost of each personal inscription, from which you can work out the cost per letter, should you so desire. The red shading highlights the entries for the four men whose headstones are pictured in the first photograph of this post, one of whom has been added in red pen on the left and does not appear on the right-hand form, which is where you will also find the details for the two personal inscriptions you can see in the first shot.
Inscriptions are frequently religious, invariably solemn, often mournful, sometimes poetic or factual, occasionally quirky – the only stipulations were that the inscription ‘should not include references to family members or circumstances that the casualty would not have known, or repeat details engraved elsewhere on the grave marker e.g. date of death’. Incidentally, the New Zealand government decided not to permit personal inscriptions for identified men, and thus only unidentified New Zealand soldiers’ headstones feature any kind of inscription, Kipling’s ‘Known unto God’. And what think you about the central, largest headstone pictured immediately above? This is not the only example I have seen of a headstone with a religious personal inscription and yet no religious symbol, which always seems a bit odd to me.
Now, if I were to follow this spiel with a hundred photos of personal inscriptions on headstones, even collaged like these, I am not so sure I would retain your attention to the end. So I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll show you a few here, and then I’ll show you some more on occasions when there’s not much going on, or simply when I feel like it. And those of you who like them will be happy bunnies, and those of you who don’t, won’t so much, and the world will keep spinning……
All these collages will enlarge, if you concentrate very, very hard. Alternatively, click on ’em. And that really is it for headstones. For now.
Very well highlighted Magicfingers. It’s something rarely thought about. Very interesting.
Thanks Andrew. I agree.
A Battlefield Tour Guide in Flanders told me he believed the charges for personal inscriptions were not often enforced by the authorities. I wondered if you had any information on this by any chance?
New to me, I must say. It may be the case, although the amount of work, if you extrapolate the form I have shown here across thousands of others, to calculate the cost of each letter (I have read that spaces between words were also charged for) would be huge for no reward if the charges were not enforced. Anyone else any idea?
Thanks Magicfingers. My relative was killed in 1916 and his original wooden grave marker showed a personal memoriam from his brother which was not transferred onto his stone as far as I know (he has a replacement one now). CWGC cannot help with more information. It would be interesting to know what proportion of headstones have a personal inscription and what the procedure was for replacing the wooden ones. It would have been a massive task to chase-up unpaid monies, unless families had to pay before the work was done.
I am not surprised at all that the original epitaph was not transferred, Gordon, and here’s why: after the war the service records of all casualties were provided to the IWGC who then contacted the next of kin on the form. They also asked at the same time about alternative religious symbols and personal inscriptions, and it was from the responses to this that the personal inscriptions were compiled, not from the original wooden crosses. Of course many addresses were by then wrong, some relatives had died, some didn’t reply for whatever reason, etc etc, all reasons why so many headstones have no personal inscription. But I am intrigued by your original question of how the money was collected, if indeed it was. I may have to do some work on it………
Once again, thank you for sharing your knowledge. I am sure if anyone can find the answer to these questions, you can.
As far as I am aware the money was collected using postage stamps. When the relative sent in their epitaph instructions they had to include the value in postage stamps… I have seen this in Australian service records.
Very interesting as ever and those personal inscriptions are a small window into the grief of their families left behind, all long gone too now of course. Very poignant indeed.
Well said Jon.
I’m always looking at these personal inscriptions which is why a lot of time can be spent in a cemetery…
One I have remembered after seeing it a long time ago belongs to an Australian killed at the Battle of Montbrehain on 5 October 1918, the last fight involving the AIF. Serjeant William Watson enlisted in July 1915, no.2478 of the 24th Battalion, was previously wounded in action and was promoted to Serjeant on 7 September 1918. He survived 3 and a half years only to fall at the last hurdle. He was 28 years of age.
Would some kind hand,
In that far off land,
Place on his grave,
A flower for me.
Twice I’ve been to Bellicourt British Cemetery and twice I’ve gone up the street to a house with flowers growing over the front fence and the stolen the most lovely red flower and placed it on his headstone.
Love it. Absolutely love it.
And thanks for the previous comment – that proves that some families certainly paid for the epitaph letters. Very interesting.
I agree with you about Daisy’s previous comment. It makes economic sense for the Government to get the bereaved families pay ‘up front’ for the inscriptions so as to avoid having to chase up any non-payments.
I found your second post on Personal Inscriptions really touching and informative, as usual. Thanks.
Thank you Gordon. Appreciated.