If you’ve ever been to a Commonwealth cemetery on a foreign battlefield you will have found yourself doing it. Regardless of your intention when you arrived, or of your attitude towards the whole edifice of remembrance, you’ll soon realise you’re doing the same thing as everyone else: walking along the rows of graves, tastefully bordered with flower beds, reading the names on headstone after bright white headstone. The cemeteries demand it.
In Britain, remembrance is presented as an uncomplicated act of remembering the names of dead soldiers. Their names can’t be forgotten if they are recorded each on their own headstone, and this seems to be enough. It’s the same impulse that gave the sea of poppies its popular appeal: one for every dead soldier, every one of whom must be remembered.
Commonwealth cemeteries are, essentially, a grid, each row numbered and lettered which you can navigate in order to find individual names. There is little to them beyond these names. They’re small fields surrounded by low walls, stuffed with names, each on their own headstone. The memorials to the missing too are litanies, long lists ordered by rank, each soldier’s name on its own row. The most overtly gaudy, tastelessly grand of these is the stocky Neo-classical triumphal arch of the Menin Gate in Ypres, at which the Last Post is played every night of the year. For the centenary of the war this ceremony has been altered to include the story of an individual soldier who died on that day one hundred years previously, whose name is recorded on the walls. The closest you get to being able to think about the whole war, the waste of a generation in pursuit of imperial grandeur, is in seeing just how many graves there are in the larger cemeteries, such as Tyne Cot outside Ypres. But even there the overwhelming atmosphere is of an afternoon stroll in a country churchyard in the rolling hills of the Home Counties.
By breaking the cemetery up into no more than a collection of individual graves each death is reduced to a personal sacrifice, to be considered one after the other. Perhaps this is born out of the need to justify each death in pursuit of a just victory, to convince ourselves that each death was worth it.
This form of remembrance is perhaps the source of the trend for tracking down relatives, however distant, who are buried in Belgium and France. Whenever I have taken school groups on trips to the battlefields there have usually been a handful of such students, visiting people they’d never previously heard of, whom they’d seek out especially for the trip. They can’t mean more to them than an unfamiliar name uncovered, possibly a sepia photograph too for some. But if the name remembered can be linked to the family then all the more tragic, all the more personal, the sacrifice.
While the Commonwealth cemeteries smother the battlefields, dotting every lane and field from Flanders to the Somme, hidden among them are a handful of very different sites of remembrance. Their rarity is political: the Belgians and French were loath to give Germany more than one cemetery for each region of the Western Front while they were bleeding the German economy dry of reparation payments. This need for a smaller number of cemeteries, each holding so many more graves, created a very different atmosphere of remembrance.
The lists of names are still present: few would argue that these names should be erased or forgotten. But they are accorded a very different status. At Langemark the Comrades’ Grave contains the remains of some 25,000 servicemen, whose names are listed on stelae ringing the grave. These stelae are bare, chest high, the names packed on in small type, several to each row. They’re there to be found but not the focus of the cemetery. Thousands more are buried in the rest of the cemetery, marked by small gravestones laid flat on the ground, each listing several dead. They are laid out in rows but each stone, a black square in the grass, seems to signify an absence. You aren’t drawn to pace the rows here. What grabs you, the focus of the cemetery, is the atmosphere of the whole. The cemetery is dotted with oak trees which have had the branches stripped from their trunks up to their crown. Their branches then knit together to form a dappled canopy of leaves that susurrate in the wind. Looking around, you see bare pillars of bark; above you what looks like a roof. It creates a sylvan crypt. Here you find yourself circling among the trees.
The cemetery is watched by a small group of figures, sculptures added in the 1950s. Their forms blur, they seem to fade into the stone wall behind them. They look down at the communal grave at their feet. Similar figures, these ones by Kathe Kollwitz, reappear a few miles away in the German cemetery at Vladslo. The Grieving Parents hug themselves as they seem to melt into their rough-hewn plinths. The father stares at the grave of Kollwitz’s own son.
Perhaps losing the war enabled the Germans to be more frank. For them, the war was nothing more than a tragedy. The lives lost were lives wasted, the future of the country that much bleaker as a result of the hubris that had driven the continent to war. Their cemeteries demand you to pause and think about the war as a collective, political, generational tragedy, and of what it might mean to us today. Kollwitz’s Grieving Parents are harrowing in a way that no field of Portland stone graves ever could be.
Battlefields tours have turned into a booming industry in the past two decades, one almost entirely catering to British tourists who want to trudge along the rows of names in Commonwealth cemeteries.
Perhaps it was this idea of remembrance, of recording and recalling eight hundred thousand personal tragedies, eight hundred thousand personal sacrifices, that made it possible for the Royal British Legion to dress children in ‘Future Soldier’ tshirts.
More names to be added to the list, more names to remember.