Standing in one of the Commission’s beautiful cemeteries it would be easy to view the rows of identically shaped headstones as uniform and regimented. That is partly the impression that they are intended to provide – reflecting the military comradeship these individuals shared in life, that continues in death. But look more closely and a different story is revealed. Each element engraved on the stone tells us about the individual, no more so than their epitaphs.
As CWGC’s Commemorations Policy Manager I make sure that the causalities that we care for are correctly commemorated. I find it difficult to visualise the scale of the task faced by our predecessors. Hundreds of thousands of headstones had to be engraved by hand and installed in thousands of cemeteries all across the world. Grieving families were travelling on personal pilgrimages to visit the grave of their loved one, which meant there was an urgency to the work. The solution was a design that blended uniformity with individuality.
The working language of the Commission is English, reflecting the first language of the military forces and the majority of those who died. Therefore, military details are laid out in a standard format and engraved in English, with the exception of French speaking Canadians whose details may be engraved in French.
Whilst the men and women we commemorate died in the service of their country, they were also individuals whose story is reflected in the personal elements of their grave marker. The personal inscription gave their family an opportunity to speak to their loved one, and to us, in their own way and often in their own language. Today most headstones are produced by a special machine, but the Commission’s skilled stonemasons can also engrave details by hand, and we can include symbols and characters not found in a Latin or Roman alphabet.
Both world wars were truly global. Look more closely at many of our headstones and you will see the breadth of the languages spoken by those whose graves we care for today. They came from around the world, sometimes serving a Commonwealth country which was their adopted home.
Here are just a handful of examples I’ve chosen to highlight this diversity.
A headstone can show the origin of the family as well as the nation for whom they fought.
Private Count Ove Krag-Juel-Vind-Frijs served in Belgium with the Canadian Infantry during the First World War but his parents in Denmark elected to have his inscription engraved in their language.
Private George Coetser of the South African Infantry died of influenza shortly before the end of the First World War.
His family chose an inscription in Dutch that confirms the bond between them would not be broken by death.
The parents of Private H B J Botha from the Transvaal in South Africa captured their response to his death in Afrikaans.
A native Welshman from Carmarthenshire, Private Hywel Griffiths was captured at Singapore and died in July 1943.
His inscription is the Welsh translation of a verse from the King James bible, and is cast in the bronze plaque which marks his grave in Myanmar.
Czechoslovakian born Private Bertrum Sabados died serving with the South Saskatchewan Regiment in July 1944 in Normandy.
His parents in Canada chose a quote about the nature of their loss to be engraved in Hungarian.