By the 1930s the work on the war cemeteries was almost complete, but the final cemetery was not actually finished until September 1938; one year before the outbreak of the Second World War.
This image of Regina Trench Cemetery, right out in the fields close to the village of Courcelette, had been built on a site where heavy fighting had taken place involving men of the Canadian Corps in September-November 1916. It was subsequently enlarged post-war by concentrating graves in from the surrounding area.
The headstones here look new; the trees are young and the plants which would give them the appearance of the ‘English garden’ just beginning to take hold. Today it remains a place of tranquility and reflection just as it was in those early days, and one of many Silent Cities well off the tourist route and rarely visited.
By the late 1920s the work on making the cemeteries along the old Western Front was in full swing and while a large number of cemeteries had been completed, many had not.
This image from the late 1920s shows White House Cemetery, close to Ypres and in the neighbouring village of St Jan, serves as a typical example. The cemetery wall has been built, the Stone of Remembrance and Cross of Sacrifice are in place, but the graves all have the original wooden crosses. The wide scope and variety of the crosses is evident as is the rural nature of the ground around Ypres, now in total contrast to what it looks like today.
While the work on British cemeteries was going on the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge had begun to make German burial sites manageable and more permanent. Today modern visitors to the Western Front are used to mass commemoration at German war cemeteries and few perhaps realise that once every grave was individually marked, often with unique and impressive headstones.
This image of the German graves at Rancourt, on the Somme battlefields, is a typical example; it shows rows and rows of individual crosses each to an individual soldier: today the same cemetery has grey stone crosses, each one commemorating a minimum of four soldiers.
As the clearance of the battlefields was coming to an end and the cemeteries established, work on making them permanent began. Initially it had been discussed that the wooden crosses as featured in last weeks post showing Acheux British Cemetery would simply be replaced by stone ones. In the end headstones were chosen as it was felt more information about the casualty could be recorded on them.
Several locations were chosen to become ‘experimental cemeteries’ – sites where the initial plans for permanent commemoration could be seen and demonstrated. Forceville Communal Cemetery and Extension on the Somme battlefields was one site, pictured here in 1921 just after the cemetery was finished. The crosses had been replaced with headstones and a Cross of Sacrifice, which would become commonplace in all major war cemeteries, had been erected along with the Stone of Remembrance seen in the background here. Forceville was one of the locations visited by King George V during his King’s Pilgrimage in 1922.
The so-called ‘Silent Cities’, the soldier’s cemeteries of the Great War, numbered in the thousands when the conflict came to an end. While the war was no there had been no thought towards permanence or any architectural design and the then Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) and now Commonwealth War Graves Commission, were faced with a huge task of properly recorded what was in the existing cemeteries while their senior staff looked at ways to ensure the war dead would be properly remembered on a long term basis.
This image of Acheux British Cemetery was taken in 1920 and shows a typical Somme cemetery at this time; in good order and with graves marked by wooden crosses. Acheux had been behind the British lines in 1916, but had seen fighting again in 1918 but the fields beyond the cemetery show how an area so close to the battle area could largely escape the hand of war. The early pilgrims to the battlefields saw cemeteries like this and the IWGC were busy during this period photographing graves for the next of kin. But a permanent solution had to be found and the next phase of the IWGC’s work will be featured in next weeks post.
This unusual image from the early 1920s shows a British party from one of the Graves Registration units involved in clearing the dead from the Great War battlefields.
Few photos of this work survive, and the caption for this says it is at ‘Nieuport’ but that seems unlikely given the nature of the ground and the fact that British soldiers were only there a short period.
A Sergeant sits on the edge of a trench while people work in the background and another civilian helping stands in the remains of a Great War defence work. There are no evidence of any bodies but it does demonstrate to some degree the sort of work that went on under the watchful eyes of an NCO in charge of such a unit. The work continued for some years after the war and many thousands of soldiers were found and reburied, albeit it often as unknown soldiers. What the work must have been like for those carrying it out we can only imagine.
On this special day, his words still resonate.
On a weekend where Remembrance is on many peoples minds, this image for once needs little description; two old soldiers, still serving, visiting a comrade’s grave at Bethune Town Cemetery in 1919.
Lest We Forget.
While the 11th November 1918 was an end to the fighting for Great Britain and became the focal point for remembrance in the post-war world, it marked a day of defeat for Germany. It always seems fitting at this time of year that we should recall Germany’s losses as well as our own; the many Great War veterans I interviewed had much respect for ‘Fritz’ and knew that as front line soldiers, they all shared the same privations and conditions. By the end of the conflict Germany had suffered in excess of two million battlefield related deaths and this image from a German artilleryman’s scrap book gives us just one small insight into those huge losses, showing German graves on the Western Front in late 1917.
The German Army did not play an equivalent of the Last Post at the grave of a fallen comrades; instead they sang Ich Hatt Einen Kameraden. The English translation reads:
I once had a comrade,
you won’t find a better one.
The drum was rolling for battle,
he was marching by my side
in the same pace and stride.
A bullet flew towards us
meant for you or for me?
It did tear him away,
he lies at my feet
like he was a part of me.
He wants to reach his hand to me,
while I’m just reloading my gun.
“Can’t give you my hand for now,
you rest in eternal life
My good comrade!”
In the years that followed 1940 most of mainland Europe was occupying by German forces. Many of the German soldiers forming part of this occupying force stayed for years. On the battlefields of the old Western Front, German serviceman whose fathers had no doubt been veterans of the Great War often toured sites and with a pocket camera recorded their journeys in the same pilgrims past and present did.
This photograph was taken by a German soldier in 1943 and shows Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near Longueval on the Somme. Many wonder what the cemeteries looked like during the occupation and it is clear from this image that this was a site being well maintained; many Imperial War Graves Commission gardeners had stayed behind in 1940 and were still doing their pre-war work. In some cases local French people were carrying on with the task. The Germans appear to have let the work continue.
This cemetery took on another importance in 1944 when it became the selected rendezvous point for any air crew shot down in the Amiens Prison Raid in 1944.
By the end of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 nearly 150,000 British and Commonwealth troops had died in the fighting. Behind such a stark number are a multitude of human stories; the true cost of the Somme, which British families bore in 1916.
This photograph was taken at Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery, near Beaumont-Hamel, in 1919. It shows the parents and sister of Eric Rupert Heaton by his grave, a simple wooden cross. The photo was taken by his brother, an army chaplain. Eric had died on 1st July 1916 leading his platoon up the slopes of Hawthorn Ridge; his body had not been found until the November placing him among the ‘missing’ and giving the family some faint hope he might have survived.
On this 96th Anniversary of the Somme we should remember the sacrifice and the often forgotten achievements of the British Army in the Great War, but achievements always come at a cost – and this photo gives us a rare glimpse into what that cost really was for some families.
Photographs of German war cemeteries always fascinate me as they not only dispel the myth that Germany never properly commemorated it’s battlefield fallen but that it gives us an insight into how revered their dead was in the same way we treated our own.
This photograph from 1915 shows a German cemetery just behind their front line in the Champagne sector. There are several villages called Fontaine in this area and it does not appear that a cemetery of this name exists today; it is likely the graves were moved into a larger cemetery post-war.
The quality of Great War images is so great that it is possible to enlarge areas of them to get out aspects that might not at first be so obvious. The enlargement of the section below captures a moving moment in time as a German soldier holds his cap in his hand with head bowed, remembering a friend and comrade who lies in the grave before him.
I recently purchased some more of the George Nightingale & Co Stereocards, produced in Britain around 1920 and sold in aid of ex-servicemen. They give a real insight into the Aftermath of the Great War and they will feature on the site over the next few weeks.
This image shows Hooge Crater Cemetery around 1920. This cemetery had been started by burial officers in October 1917 and there were less than a hundred graves by the end of the war; however it was chosen as one of the sites to become a main concentration cemetery and burials were moved in from 1919 creating a burial ground with more than 2300 graves.
Given the angle of the photograph, it is taken to the rear of the cemetery looking up the slope of the Menin Road Ridge towards Hooge itself. Among the standard wooden crosses with their metal ‘ticker-tape’ name tabs are numerous individualised graves brought in from other cemetery to form the neat rows visible here. Great War period duckboards form the walk way and the gentlemen in the photo is likely to be an early Imperial War Graves Commission gardener.
Continuing with the images from the collection of post-war stereo-cards today’s photograph shows ‘Gouzeaucourt Cemetery’.
Gouzeaucourt is a large village on the Hindenburg Line battlefields reached by the British in early 1917 and fought over in the Battle of Cambrai that year and in much of the fighting of 1918. There are a number of cemeteries in the area but a good clue here is the grave visible towards the front, where a name is clearly visible. Research shows this is the grave of L/Cpl B.S. Allen of the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment who died here on 2nd April 1917 and is buried in what is now Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery.
The cemeteries remained in this original state well into the mid-1920s and in some cases well into the 30s. The majority of the original crosses were burned when replaced with headstones but some families came to claim them and others did so by post; many exist as war memorials in parish churches around Great Britain.
Pozieres British Cemetery was started when a Dressing Station was established close to here in 1917. After the war the site was chosen to make a permanent cemetery and graves from the 1916 fighting for the village were moved in here. The Pozieres Memorial – the walls visible to the rear of the graves – was added later to commemorate those who fell in the March-April 1918 operations and had no known grave.
This image dates from the 1930s and shows the completed cemetery but with some of the original features still in evidence. Of particular interest are the wooden crosses crowded into one area; these are the original grave markers and there was no-one buried under them at this stage; headstones had already replaced them. Families visiting the battlefields at this time could claim original crosses and even apply for them by post.
The larger cross was a memorial to the 1st Australian Division which had been unveiled here on 8th July 1917. The Division had suffered over 7,700 casualties in the Pozieres fighting. The cross was later replaced with a permanent memorial and was taken back to Australia.
In the years between the First and Second World Wars thousands travelled to the battlefields in France and Flanders. Many were the families of those who had fallen, but some were also veterans of the war, going back to make sense of their past and perhaps pay their respects to an old comrade who hadn’t come home. Several of the veterans I interviewed had gone back in the 20s/30s and said it was hard even then to find some of the places they had known. Two veterans expressed their feelings in the poem The Road To La Bassée:
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine -
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
This photograph from the 1930s shows one such veteran, at New Irish Farm Cemetery, close to Ypres. He looks down on a row of graves of two Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Machine-Gunner and an Irish Rifleman. Which one was the grave he had come to see? Was it a family member or a comrade he had left behind on the battlefield? We will never know, but it was clearly a defining moment for him, and one he wanted to recall by having the visit photographed. This is not a tourist snap; it is an insight into loss, regret and no doubt a little guilt, at having survived when this man did not. What was passing through his mind as he looked down on the white stone? The beauty of a simple image that poses more questions than it answers.
Unicorn Cemetery close to the village of Vendhuile is on the Hindenburg Line battlefields which saw fighting in 1917/18. It gets its name as some original burials were made by the burial officer of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division whose insignia was the head of a Unicorn. It contains the graves of nearly 600 British and Commonwealth casualties of the Great War who fell here in the last two years of the war.
This photograph shows the family of one of these casualties visiting the cemetery in the early 1920s. The cemetery has not been made permanant and a wooden signboard bears the cemetery name and map reference. The plots have already been laid out and a little fence placed round with a gate; at the time this image was taken, the decisions about how to make these cemeteries permanant were in fact still being made.
Who these early battlefield pilgrims were is sadly not noted on the photograph; it would appear perhaps to be a sister on the left and mother on the right – perhaps father took the photograph? Given the cost and difficulty in getting to these places at that time for many families like this it was a once in a lifetime visit; that this photograph was special to those in it is clear from the fact that it remains mint; well hidden and well stored for decades until I found it in a Sussex junk shop in the 1980s.