British Cemeteries and Memorials of the Great War

Date Published: 
September, 1930
Original Author: 
H. C. Osborne
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 44th Annual Convention

It is a privilege, which I esteem highly, to appear before you and address this Convention of the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents. During the past ten years in the course of official duties, I have been brought into contact with cemetery authorities at over fifteen hundred points in Canada and some hundreds in the United States where British soldiers of the Great War are buried. The most interesting of these contacts have naturally been in the larger cities and towns, where cemetery organization and development have been raised to a high point of excellence; and I have had full opportunity to appreciate the admirable standards and ideals which modern cemetery superintendents hold before them. To members of your Association from the United States, as to your colleagues in Canada, I owe a debt of gratitude for helpful cooperation in, and sympathetic understanding of the great task of commemorating in a fitting manner the gallant Dead of the Great War; and it is a pleasure to have this opportunity of publicly acknowledging it.

Most of you gentlemen are welcome visitors to Canada from the United States, and it is not to be expected that you will have much knowledge of the subject of my address, which is naturally more familiar to citizens of the British Empire. You have, however, your own great problem of commemoration arising from the World War, and we in Canada know something of the American Battle Monument Commission, the ranking member of which is General John J. Pershing. Under its direction beautiful military cemeteries have been created at Brookwood, England, and at seven points in Belgium and France, containing the graves of over 30,000 of your soldiers who are buried in Europe, more than 46,000 bodies having been returned to their native soil. Chateau-Thierry, Cantigny, St. Michiel, Meuse-Argonne—these are great names in American history, names which will remind future generations of mighty occasions on which valorous American troops upheld the highest national traditions. At these points splendid memorials are being raised by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

But you have asked me today to speak about the scheme of commemoration of the British Empire, which, by reason of its scale, is unique in history. It is a terrible commentary on the Great War to point out that losses aggregating more than 122,000 human lives, such as were suffered by the United States Forces were comparatively small. The American troops were not engaged in battle until July 1918 and their losses were sustained in fighting between then and the Armistice in the following November. The other nations had been engaged since 1914 and during those four years their losses had grown to almost unbelievable figures.
May I at this point recall to your minds the magnitude of the Great War.? Telegraph, telephone and wireless had in 1914 made possible the effective use of troops over a very wide front and the coordination of effort on several widely separated fronts. In as recent an instance as the Russo-Japanese War in 1914, the Japanese had 270,000 men, first line troops and 200,000 older troops in reserve. 270,000 is a formidable figure but compare it for a moment with the Great War. I have never seen an official compilation of troops actually engaged at any given time, but Nelson's Encyclopedia in 1919 had a carefully prepared table giving in detail the number of troops mobilized for and during the Great War by all belligerents. And what do you gentlemen think the figure was?—59,176,864!  The number of fatal casualties, or to put it bluntly, men killed in the Great War was 7,781,000. When it comes to casualties in the broader sense of the word, that is men reported killed, wounded or missing, the total runs in excess of 33,000,000. Now I shall not stop to point a moral but it should be apparent to those who talk lightly of war in the future that, with the knowledge obtained in the Great War and the advances of science since, it is possible to envisage the wholesale, organized destruction not only of soldiers, but of men, women and children, and indeed the whole populations. It will not be like the last, plague in the Book of Exodus, when a great cry went up in Egypt and it was decreed that the firstborn of every family should die. It will be complete obliteration of whole families and whole communities. In such circumstances one can easily conceive such a breakdown of human government that civilized society as we know it would come to an end.

A traveler in France, who should be in the old city of Rouen, would naturally go into the cathedral, and there he would enter the Joan of Arc Chapel. Having done so, he would observe, close to the statue of the Maid, a beautiful tablet, colored and gilded and bearing the arms of Great Britain surrounded by the arms of all the self-governing dominions of the British Empire and the words:

"To the Glory of God and to the Memory of One Million Dead of the British Empire Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918."

The presence of such a tablet in that particular chapel is not only a testimony to the healing hand of time, but also to the generosity of the French, when one remembers that five hundred years ago St. Joan herself was burned to death by the British—in that same town. Similar tablets have been erected in other cathedrals in Belgium and France, and they will serve as perpetual and significant reminders, to all who read, of the part taken by our Empire in the greatest war in history. The British contribution in men was six million from the British Isles, 1,500,000 from India, 600,000 from Canada, about the same from Australia and proportionate quotas from other parts of the Empire. The number of fatal casualties, among the British forces was 1,089,919. The number of recorded and registered graves is about 600,000; so you will see that there remain over 400,000 who are in the tragic company of the "Missing", that is to say, those known to be dead, but the site of whose grave is unknown. The 600,000 graves are in 15,593 cemeteries in all parts of the world.

The task of commemorating this vast body of splendid men was entrusted to the Imperial War Graves Commission. This is an Imperial body on which all the countries of the British Empire are represented. The money required is provided by the different countries in proportion to their respective graves, Great Britain contributing 80 percent and the remaining 20 percent being divided among the Dominions, Colonies and Dependencies.

Under the Commission's control there have been created in Belgium and France alone one thousand new British war cemeteries, containing 300 to 10,000 graves each and about 1500 plots in parish or communal cemeteries. This is only the beginning. These cemeteries are to be found all the way from Antwerp to Jerusalem and from the Baltic to the Bosphorus. They stretch across Switzerland and Italy, across the Greek Islands, down the Gallipoli Peninsula, through Syria and Palestine, then southward to Egypt and East Africa. At Iraq, the ancient Chaldea, between the lower waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris there are seven. In all these parts of the world it is as if a giant had strode about from the English Channel to the Sea of Galilee, leaving great white footmarks as he passed. The line extends across the north of India to China to Australia and New Zealand, across Canada, where there are 7000 war graves in 1500 places and so back to the British Isles, where there are 89,000 graves in 9,500 churchyards and cemeteries. In addition, these war graves and war plots are to be found in fifty other countries not mentioned and in the track I have indicated.

May I attempt to describe these cemeteries to you? As far as the countries of our allies are concerned, the land has been given in perpetuity. In other places it has been acquired. The cemeteries are artistically and permanently enclosed in stone or stone and brick walls. The headstones are of uniform pattern; indeed uniformity is the keynote of the whole scheme of commemoration. The field officer and the private soldier lie side by side, their graves marked in exactly the same way. The headstones are meant to typify the union of all "in motive, inaction and in death." By their very uniformity they speak in one voice of one death, one sacrifice for a cause that was common to all. A feature of all the cemeteries is the Cross of Sacrifice. This memorial, a beautiful cross, to the face of which is fixed a great bronze sword, stands sentinel over the graves of British soldiers. Those who have seen them will have unfading pictures of these crosses; on the ramparts of Ypres, in sheltered nooks beneath the high ground along the western front, in the plains of Italy, amid the sands of Palestine or Mesopotamia, in the clear air of East Africa or crowning the “brown-streaked cliffs of Gallipoli." Wherever found, they carry the same suggestion, namely, one sacrifice for a common cause. In the larger cemeteries there is another monument, the Stone of Rembrance, "a great fair stone of fine proportions", bearing the words, "THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE." And in the largest one, such as Etaples, where there are 11,000 graves, eminent architects have designed other structures, which add dignity and grandeur to the cemeteries, in the form of wide terraces and vaulted buildings, which serve as record-houses or rest-houses where visitors go apart to meditate or pray. At Tyne Cot, Passchendaele, three German concrete blockhouses have been introduced into the scheme very effectively, and at the far side is a great screen wall, 500 feet long, on which are inscribed the names of 35,000 missing men. A feature which is common to all the cemeteries is the beautiful horticultural treatment. One walks on turf like that of old England while the eye is charmed by a profusion of color. Flowers are everywhere, in beds and borders and climbing over the headstones.

Curiously enough one does not have a feeling of sadness on entering these cemeteries. The headstones are spread out in perfect order, as it were in platoons and regiments and I have sometimes a feeling that if the bugle sounded, all these soldiers would rise and march again. One is affected by the thought of the high courage and chivalry of the men who lie there amid so much beauty and in a silence broken only by the song of the birds. The feeling is not so much one of sadness as a curious exaltation a sort of lifting up of the spirit.

To this particular audience it may not be uninteresting to hear a word or two concerning the manner in which it has been sought to make these British War Cemeteries permanent in character. One is familiar with the old-fashioned graveyard where headstones are to be seen, some displaced by time and others almost falling down. In the War Cemeteries of which I am speaking a trench is dug at the back of each row of graves and a continuous concrete beam is constructed in it. On the upper side of this beam there are sockets into which the headstones are fitted and fixed with cement. The headstones themselves are all of the same shape, 3 feet 3 inches high, 2 feet 6 inches above ground and 9 inches below ground. They are 1 foot 3 inches broad and 3 inches thick, the top forming a segment of a circle 2 ft. 6 inches in radius. It may be pointed out that although the land for these cemeteries has been given in perpetuity in each former allied country by the people of that country at their own cost, following the generous example first set by France, the method of construction which I have above described removes any fear that the land might ever be used for another purpose. The labor and expense which would be involved in the removal of these headstones and their foundations would be economically prohibitive.

I would like to tell you now what is being done about maintaining these cemeteries. On May 4th, 1930, Mr. Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons said,

"The cemeteries which are going to he erected to the British dead on all the battlefields in all the theatres of war will be entirely different from the ordinary cemeteries which mark the resting places of those who pass out in the common flow of human fate from year to year. They will be supported and sustained by the wealth of this great nation and Empire, as long as we remain a great nation and Empire; and there is no reason at all why in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this great War shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial to the efforts and the glory of the British Army and the Sacrifices made in that great cause."

In fulfillment of that pledge, the governments of the empire, have for some years been getting together by annual contributions a fund which is to reach the total of five million pounds. These contributions are vested in Trustees and the income from that fund will be used to maintain the cemeteries and memorials in order and beauty forever.

Gentlemen, we sometimes speak of ancient remains; those of Assyria and Babylon and Greece and Rome, and undoubtedly from them we learn much of the character of the people who lived in those days. When many centuries have passed these war cemeteries—these silent cities—will be found; and they will speak for us, to tell future generations the story of the men who lived in our day. And what an epic it will be! As far as Canada is concerned, when the story is all pieced together, it will speak of 600,000 of the flower of our manhood who at the call of king and country rallied to the colors and cast their all upon the hazard; and over 60,000 of whom gave up their lives.

I told you a few moments ago that there were over 400,000 men who came in the category of the missing. It was and is the purpose and intention of the governments concerned that every one of these men shall be commemorated by name; and in order to carry out that idea the erection of great structures was necessary. On the high ground, forming a sea-mark for an passing in and out of the Dardanelles, there is a monument 100 feet high which carries the names of 18,000 men of the British Isles. On the Anzac Ridge of Gallipoli the missing of the Australians are commemorated.  In Macedonia there is a similar monument to the Salonika force. At the southern end of the Suez Canal, at Port Tewfik, there is an interesting memorial to the Indian troops a square obelisk, with flanking walls for the inscriptions. The sculpture takes the form of crouching tigers, one guarding the monument from the Canal and the other from the sea. There are a number of other such memorials, including four in Great Britain three to men of the Royal Navy and one to the Mercantile Marine. It is of course in France and Belgium that this sort of commemoration is on the largest scale. The Ypres Salient is possibly the most blood-stained piece of ground in the world. At the Menin Gate, Ypres, at the town end of the causeway leading across the moat to the Menin Road, a magnificent arch has been erected. As one approaches from the outside on sees, below the carved figure of a lion in repose, these words:

"To the Armies of the British Empire Who Stood Here From 1914 to 1918 and to Those of Their Dead Who Have No Known Grave."

The main hall of this most imposing memorial has a span of 70 feet; it is 50 feet high and 130 feet long. In that hall and in the adjacent stairways and galleries are inscribed in stone the names of 56,000 men of the British Empire who were missing and lost their lives in those parts but have no known grave. Among these are 7,500 Canadians. Our total Canadian missing were in excess of 19,000. The remaining 11,500 are to be commemorated on our own monument at Vimy Ridge, about which I shall speak in a moment.

Quite recently in northern France I was present at the unveiling by the British Ambassador to France of a memorial at Le Touret which bears 13,500 names. I also saw in course of construction at Thiepval another great memorial, counterpart of the Menin Arch, which bears the names of more than 73,000 soldiers, practically all from the British Isles, who were missing in the terrible battle of the Somme. During the past two months several other memorials to the missing have been unveiled bringing the present total in Belgium and France up to, I think, ten. Thus is being faithfully redeemed the pledge that those to whom was denied the known resting places given to their comrades in death should be fittingly commemorated individually by name.

The work that I have so far described has been carried out by the Imperial War Graves Commission. I should like to add for the information of good neighbors like yourselves who take an interest in Canada, share with you in the occupation of this North American continent, that apart from its participation in the general work of Empire commemoration, the Dominion of Canada has been permitted to erect memorials at its own separate cost upon eight battlefield sites where her troops took an important or decisive part. Three of these are in Belgium and five in France. I shall not pause to describe them except to say that one of the memorials in Belgium is at St. Julien where in 1915 the Canadian troops commanded the attention of the World by withstanding the first German gas attacks. To use the words of Marshal Foch on the occasion of the unveiling of the memorial "They wrote here their first page of that Book of Glory which is the history of their participation in the War". The main Canadian memorial in France is at Vimy Ridge and this is now in course of construction.

You will understand; I am sure, that the recital of a story of the commemoration of men who died for their country arouses patriotic sentiments of a high order. In this case it makes us Canadians rejoice in our British heritage. The memorials of which I have been speaking are the visible signs of one of the greatest phenomena in history: a solidarity of sentiment during the Great War, a common loyalty possessed by the Mother Country by the great Dominions, by the Colonies and Dependencies of this realm, men of many complexions and creeds, drawn from regions and climes so vast that they cover one quarter of the earth, owning allegiance to one King, moved and governed by one impulse of loyalty and devotion. When was anything like it in the world before?
Is it possible to leave this subject without expressing some aspiration for the future? A short time ago we seemed to be rising out of the murk of doubt, fear and distrust which followed the conclusion of the War and the negotiation of the Peace Treaties. The League of Nations was functioning, as it happily still is, the Kellogg Pact had been signed, the London Conference on Naval Limitations was in view. We seemed to have heard, like a bell in a fog, a warning that we were drifting backward and to have set our course definitely ahead once more. Already we described the misty outlines of a fairer world in which differences would be submitted to reason and justice rather than to the forces of destruction and of death. And now again the outlines of that world have become faint and its bold headlines seem like to disappear. The world is full of rumors of possibilities of conflict between principal powers and of a possible train of events which would involve all the Countries of Europe except perhaps Great Britain. The status quo resulting from the Peace Treaty is acceptable to those who profited by it but it is otherwise with those whose populations were severed and whose territories were mutilated. The possibility of war is only too apparent.

But, Gentlemen, as for the United and the British Empire, our hearts and minds are set on peace. In a keenly competitive world we may have our differences but on two things we are agreed. We do not propose ever to fight each other; and to maintain .the general peace of the world is the first object of our national policies. May we not hope then that, in any conjuncture of events, we shall .be found side by side in a supreme effort to ensure that the tragedy of 1914-1918 shall not be repeated? And as between this British Country and our great neighbor may friendly visits which we pay one to the other be in every case embassies of good will, dedicated to the promotion of mutual forbearance and good understanding and to that sort of sturdy friendship which is not made for fair weather only, but which proves its worth in times of storm and stress.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 44th Annual Convention
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
September 8, 9, 10 and 11, 1930