In July 2006 Jean & I made a tiring and emotionally draining pilgrimage to 14 cemeteries in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). At each one a member of my family was either buried or commemorated and Jean posted a little Cross of Remembrance (you can see the photos of each one on the Debt of Honour Register. I should add that I have not yet identified a member of Jean’s family that died for Kind & Country, although many of them served in both World Wars.)
years we’ve seen many photographs and films of these war grave cemeteries on
television. But seeing them on television is one thing, seeing them for real is
quite another. Although no two are the same, each one is instantly recognisable
from the style of architecture and layout. Each one is maintained to the
highest possible standard no matter how big or how small, or how inaccessible.
In several cases the CWGC cemetery is an extension of the local communal
cemetery (e.g. Ostende,
sadly, one CWGC site has been the subject of repeated attacks of vandalism with
the result that its opening hours are now restricted. And where is this site?
our pilgrimage at the Chatham Naval Memorial and then crossed the Channel and
headed off a few hundred miles to
One such was the biggest CWGC site, Tyne Cot cemetery. Tyne Cot is an unusual cemetery in that the plinth on which stands the Cross of Remembrance is much larger than normal, as you can see from the photo below, left. It’s only when you come close to it does the reason become apparent – the plinth entirely covers a German blockhouse, a small portion of which is visible through an opening in the masonry. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up on end when I saw it.
The other unusual aspect about Tyne Cot is that some of the gravestones in the immediate vicinity of the blockhouse are not arranged the usual razor sharp serried ranks, but are higgedly-piggedly. This is because these stones mark the exact spot where these brave lads fell in taking the blockhouse.
When we arrived there were already 2 coach loads of schoolchildren visiting the cemetery, and yet another arrived just as we were leaving. In the cemetery there were children everywhere, including some, I was disconcerted to see, climbing all over the plinth of the Cross of Remembrance. On reflection I decided that perhaps that was as it should be. The children were learning of the immense cost, in human terms, that preserving freedom entails. I feel that the souls of the fallen men would somehow be quietly satisfied that their sacrifice had not been in vain, and that these children were enjoying the freedom to scramble over the plinth for which these brave lads had given their all.
In all we
visited 14 cemeteries and memorials. In many ways one of the most moving was
The interested reader can find photographs of practically all the CWGC cemeteries and memorials at their website (click on the link at the bottom of this page. Here are two more that I want to show you. The first is the Australian Memorial to the 10,000+ Australian soldiers who died thousands of miles from their homes, situated just outside the village of Villers-Bretonneux on the Somme; the other the Cemetery at Loos, in the Pas de Calais region of France.
The Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux,
One aspect of this pilgrimage that will forever remain with us were the host of personal tributes to loved ones in all the cemeteries we visited. In many ways the saddest aspect of looking at these gravestones is to see so many bearing the simple inscription “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God”. What was particularly moving was, particularly at Tyne Cot, was that some kind persons had planted small Crosses of Remembrance by so many of these gravestones. It was if they wanted to say “I don’t know who you are, chum, but don’t think for a second that your sacrifice has gone unnoticed or unappreciated.” At the end of our pilgrimage we had one or two little Crosses of Remembrance left over so Jean planted them by some of these gravestones.