As a battlefield guide, I spend a lot of time around cemeteries and memorials. From a practical perspective, there are lots of key and interesting stories that you can tell whilst in a cemetery or by a memorial. You may have a Victoria Cross winner, family members buried or commemorated near to each other or be accompanying a student to the grave or location of the name of a loved one. You may have been able to find out some details about their family member with the help of war diaries and other accounts. As a guide, you find yourself visiting the same cemeteries time and time again in order to give each new set of students the key stories. However, on occasion, you visit a cemetery that comes to mean something special to you personally. This may be because of a particular burial, a local connection, or simply the setting of the cemetery itself. In this blog post, in no particular order, I’ll be running through a few of my favourite cemeteries and why they are.
Firstly, a bit of contextual information around the cemeteries themselves and how they are maintained. As we are all aware, the First World War was unlike any other conflict that had come before it. Large numbers of young men signed up to serve their King and Country for a variety of reasons. These young men were teachers, clerks, shop assistants, miners; they were not career soldiers. This unprecedented level of recruitment into the armed forces presented new challenges, not least the challenge of identifying all these new and returning soldiers seeing as the British Army had only introduced identity discs in 1907. These identity discs would become of vital importance throughout the First World War and ever since, in aiding the identification of the dead. However, due to a plethora of reasons, it was not/has not always been possible to identify the dead or sets of remains that have been discovered since the end of the First World War.
The fact that there was a significant quantity of men who signed up who had been civilians prior to the war had a significant effect on the way their remains were dealt with. In previous conflicts, it had been common practice to bury the dead in mass graves for practicality reasons. Particularly in warmer climates, it was necessary to bury the remains as quickly as possible in order to keep the water supplies safe from contamination and to prevent the spread of diseases from the bodies. However, the vision of one man meant this would not be the case for the dead of the Great War; that man was Fabian Ware. Aged 45 in 1914, Ware was too old to fight in the First World War. Instead, he became the commander of a mobile ambulance unit of the British Red Cross. Saddened by the sheer number of casualties, he felt driven to find a way to ensure the final resting places of the dead would not be lost. Under his leadership, his unit began recording and caring for all the graves they came across. They would also bury any dead that had not been afforded that dignity yet. The unit would take photographs of the markers they erected to send to the families with any personal effects. Soon, other mobile units were also taking on this work. By 1915, their work was given official recognition by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission. In 1917, the unit was given a Royal Charter and became the Imperial War Graves Commission, or as its known today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). It is the Commissions role to maintain the cemeteries that are in their care, to ensure the memory of those who fought and died is always present. All headstones for burials are the same in design, the idea being that in life and death, all are treated the same. The horticulture was suggested to be similar in appearance to an English country garden and changes throughout the year so that the flowers fit with the seasons. These cemeteries, although sombre in nature, are spectacular to see and really add to the story of the First World War in ways that nothing else can.
The first of my favourite cemeteries is La Belle Alliance on the outskirts of Ypres. It was started as a burial ground in February/March 1916, by the 10th and 11th King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and was used again in July/August 1917 for solders from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Border Regiment, the Royal Engineers, the Royal Field Artillery, the Royal Flying Corps, the Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment), the Somerset Light Infantry and the South Staffordshire Regiment. It is a battlefield cemetery, which means that burials have not been moved into the cemetery after the war ended. There are 60 burials of which 50 are identified. This is one of my personal favourites for a few reasons. Firstly, its location. To get to the cemetery, you have to turn off a main road onto a track and then walk down a footpath through fields, as the cemetery is a little island in the field. In the summer, the crops grow right above your head. Even though its near to a main road, it is very idyllic. Secondly, there is a local connection for me to this cemetery. Out of the 50 identified burials, 15 of them are South Staffordshire Regiment, which is my local regiment. Of further interest, 6 of them were killed on 27th July 1917 – the same day as Thomas Barratt VC – who is buried 1.5km to the west at Essex Farm and are from the same battalion as well – 7th Battalion. I have often wondered if these men were somehow tied in with the incident for which Thomas was awarded his VC – which I will cover in another post.
The rest of my choices for this particular post all require a journey down to the Somme from Ypres. The first one of these, on the northern side of the Albert-Bapaume Road is Ancre British Cemetery. This cemetery was created in 1917, following the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. The battlefield was cleared, and a number of cemeteries were created including Ancre British Cemetery. There were originally 517 burials almost all of the 63rd (Naval) and 36th Divisions, but after the Armistice the cemetery was greatly enlarged when many more graves from the same battlefields were brought together at this central location. This makes it a concentration cemetery. The majority of those buried in the cemetery died on 1st July, 3rd September or 13th November 1916 in the various attacks on the Beaumont-Hamel area. There are 2540 casualties buried or commemorated in the cemetery. 1335 of the graves are unidentified, but special memorials commemorate 43 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. This cemetery is a personal favourite because of its positioning and the stories that can be told. Positioning wise, it’s in a very peaceful location at the bottom of a large valley. If you go right up to the top of the cemetery, your view leads all the way up to the Ulster Tower and the Schwaben Redoubt, covering the area where the 36th (Ulster) Division attacked on 1st July 1916 (as shown in the photograph below). Secondly, the stories. There’s always the intriguing concept of the 63rd (Naval) Division – where the Navy found themselves with too many sailors at the outbreak of war – so it was suggested that the excess sailors be formed into an infantry unit instead. There’s also a set of brothers who both died on 1st July 1916 and one man who is one of four from his family to die on the same day – his brother and 2 cousins being the others.
For the next location on the list, we must go to the south side of the Albert-Bapaume Road to Dantzig Alley Cemetery. Near to the village of Mametz, the cemetery was first started in July 1916, after the area was fought over on 1st July 1916. The cemetery was then used right up until November 1916 and then again in August and September 1918. The cemetery contains 2,053 burials and commemorations. 518 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 17 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. Other special memorials record the names of 71 casualties buried in other cemeteries, whose graves were destroyed by shell fire. Whilst there are similarities in why I have chosen this cemetery to others in this list to do with location setting and interesting stories to tell, the main reason for the importance of this cemetery is a personal connection. Buried in this cemetery is a young man by the name of Walter Middleton of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was killed on 25th July 1916. Walter was killed when the CO of his battalion decided to ride his horse around a trench area (4/5 miles away from the front line) as he believed that the area was out of range for ordinary shelling. However, the Germans did shell the area when they saw the officer on horseback – killing Walter and two other soldiers – one being the CO’s groom who was accompanying him. The CO survived the incident. This story holds personal resonance as Walter is the great-uncle of my best friend when I was at school. Whenever I go to Dantzig Alley, I always make a stop to see Walter. He is buried in a beautiful location, right at the top of the cemetery, overseeing the other burials, down into the valley and then across to Mametz Wood and the other woods in the area.
If I were to list all of the cemeteries that held personal resonance to myself, this post would never end! Because of that, I shall be splitting this feature into three separate posts, in order to give justice to all of these beautiful sites which hold a special place in my heart.
Til next time!