Don't worry lad, your country won't forget you

War Grave Matters



In Flanders Fields

"In Flanders Fields" was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae M.D. during his time working at a Dressing Station set in the bank of the Ypres Canal throughout the Second Battle of Ypres 1915. The poem first appeared anonymously in Punch on 8th December 1915. Later in the war he was in charge of No.3 General Hospital, Boulogne. Unfortunately he succumbed to Pneumonia on 28th January 1918 aged 45 years and is buried in Wimereux Communal Cemetery north of Boulogne, France.



In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae


An exceptionally unusual commemoration

The case of the "Unknown British Soldier" who lies in Charles Campbell's Grave

Charles Campbell, born 5/1/1896 (note the grave incorrectly states 'age 23'), was a labourer living with his parents at 188 Stephenson St, North Shields, at the time of his enlistment 3/11/15. He volunteered for service with the Tyneside Division of the RNVR and was allocated the official number "Tyneside Z/8283." His record states that he expressed a desire to serve afloat. He joined the 6th Depot Bn. at Crystal Palace and despite his preference for sea-service, was sent to the 1st Reserve Bn. at Blandford 6/1/16.
In July 1916 he was drafted to the Drake Bn. in France and joined the Base Depot at Etaples 12/7/16. In mid-September 1916 he was posted to the 8th Entrenching Bn, RND (an RND Reserve/Labour Bn.). He remained with the 8th Ent.Bn. for an unusually long period and it was not until early March 1917 that he finally joined the ranks of the Drake Bn.
On the 16/4/17 he was posted "Missing", later reported "Missing, believed killed 16/4/17."
In late May 1917, a report arrived which read:- "This man, along with several others, was on a working party when a shell burst amongst them. Two others were killed and Campbell was reported Missing. We have received no further information but have every reason to believe that he was killed."
In late November 1917 he was officially "Assumed Killed in Action 16/4/17." No further information was forthcoming; no report of his burial was received, so it was normal practice that after approx. 8 months he would be assumed dead.
Three years passed.
Then on 30/10/20 a report was received from a Graves Registration Unit in France:-
"Exhumed from a point ¾ mile East of Fampoux, to Point du Jour Military Cemetery No.1, 2 ½ miles E.N.E. of Arras, Plot 3, Row "F", Grave No.3."
His parents were informed 2/11/20.
On 6/11/20 a letter was received from the Director of Grave Registration & Enquiries which stated that the report of his burial was to be deleted, as it was sent in error. A request was sent to the DGRE to ask if any report of burial had been received. The DGR&E replied 13/11/20:- "It is believed that rating is buried in above named cemetery and a cross to this effect has been erected on grave."
On 23/11/20 another request was sent to the DGR&E asking them to state on what grounds the rating was believed to buried in the above named cemetery.
DGR&E replied 3/12/20:- "In May of this year Mr Campbell visited Gavrelle & found a grave between two houses marked 'Unknown Brit. Soldier' and was convinced it was that of his Son's. He requested that the grave might be lifted and marked with the name of his son. The grave was found by the Graves Registration Unit, exhumed and reburied in Point du Jour Brit. Cem. Grave 3, Row 7, Plot 3. As no means of actual identification were found on the body, and no other graves were exhumed from this area, the grave was marked 'Believed to be that of A.B. Campbell.' NOK were informed of these facts by DGR&E on 2/11/20."

There is little doubt that the Grave at Point du Jour marked "TZ/8253 AB C. Campbell RNVR, Drake Bn. RND" does not contain his body, but that of an unknown British Soldier. The recorded circumstances of Campbell's death suggest that he was 'blown to atoms' by the shell which killed two of his comrades. In the absence of his body, they were forced to post him as missing, with the later amendment that he was "believed killed."

The DGR&E acted with reserved compassion; while allowing the distraught father his wish, they made it clear that they found no evidence that it was the body of his son and marked his grave "Believed to be AB Campbell."

We have no objection to this case of controlled compassion on behalf of the DGR&E. They did the right thing by his family. Had they not agreed to this compassionate assumption, the name C.Campbell would now be engraved on the Arras Memorial to the Missing and there would be one more Grave of an "Unknown British Soldier" in Point du Jour Cemetery.


Here we present extracts from a series of articles originally published in The Times of November 10th 1928


The Silent World - Battlefields of France & Belgium

Wooden Crosses - Equality in Service and Death

The Headstones - Cross of Sacrifice and the Stone

The Records - The Difficulties of Identification


The Silent World - Battlefields of France & Belgium

Between the Armistice and September, 1921, 204,654 bodies were exhumed and reburied by the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries. From that date till the present year 28,036 bodies have been recovered, of whom 25 per cent have been identified either by their disks or other means. All belongings found are sent to London, to be traced if possible. Within the last seven years 20,000 graves in France and Belgium, and 3,000 in other theatres of war, have been identified by effects found in them, and the total of identifications since 1921 is close on 32,000.

This work needed special knowledge of many sorts, as well as past experience of the War and sound detective instinct; and those who spent years of their lives upon it learned that no trifle could be overlooked, nor any clue missed. The dead of 1914 and 1915 had gone into action with more marks and badges than their successors; the khaki of some corps differed a little from that of others; and there were minor details of battalion equipment, or changes on the eve of action, which had to be verified, recorded, and given weight in the evidence.

For example, a British cavalryman in August, 1914, was badly wounded and died in a Belgian farmhouse. The Germans were advancing and, fearing what might happen if the body were found, the farmer buried it in his farmyard. This fact only came to light quite recently. The body was then exhumed and buried in the communal cemetery. Nothing more than a finger-ring, marked with two letters, was with it; and examination showed that the letters had been on the metal before the ring was made. The case was reported in the papers, and nearly a hundred letters were received from relatives of missing men. These letters were sifted, and by the help of a mother's description of her son, and by the farmer's and his wife's description of the soldier as they recalled him, the remains were identified as those of an N.C.O. of a Cavalry regiment which, it appeared, had discarded their tunics in a last charge they made before falling back. It was because of this that no badges of rank, nor any personal belongings, were with his body.

Identification disks often disintegrated too soon; but sometimes, for no apparent reason, over breadths of ground that had been gassed and shelled continuously, the searchers would come on the dead of years ago with their last home letters still legible in their pockets and their watches merely blackened and not destroyed. When different divisions had in the course of war occupied the same ground, evidence would be overlapping and contradictory unless backed by personal belongings, however trivial. A lump of rust, which had to be opened with the utmost care, lasted long enough under the hands of an expert, to reveal that it had been a compass, presented to a sergeant by some of his friends. A photograph-case on which the maker's name still stood out proved another identity; and a key-registry tab-thanks to the firm which recorded to whom it had been sold-gave up the name of a Rifleman. A soldier of another regiment scratched his own regimental number on a spoon, and gave it to a private in the Worcesters, on whose body it was found. The giver lived to testify to the fact, and it was accepted as all but conclusive, and the grave marked :-" Believed to be." A private of the Middlesex, who in civil life had been a photographic engraver, cut his regimental badge on his pipebowl. That, with a piece of boot bearing his battalion number, was enough to give him his named grave. Part of a memorial card was the sole effect on an unknown soldier. It referred to a funeral in a London cemetery, and by the help of the cemetery authorities there a relative was found who could give information, and the soldier was identified.

It is easy to see how keenly the Registration and Enquiry side of the Graves Commission tried to unravel slight and frail clues. They reached, indeed, across the world to make sure. A girl in New Zealand had given a soldier there a little gold medal - some prize she had won at a swimming competition - which bore the initials of the club and her name. Almost ten years after the Armistice a body was found near Flers, and the medal with it. In due time the news reached the girl through the New Zealand papers; she remembered to whom she had given the trinket, and his name was recorded. Again, in August, 1916, near Mametz Wood, the same shell killed an unknown Second Lieutenant of Engineers and an unknown R.A.M.C. Captain who was dressing his wounds. Both disappearances were noted in the burial returns at the time. The Captain was identified by correspondence from the London office; but none knew for a while who the Second Lieutenant might have been. A little later a Canadian Captain who had heard the bare facts of the double death, asked the Sornme Registration Office for information as to the burial place of the Second Lieutenant, who was his brother. By this time London had traced the identity of the second missing man through the same clerk who had dealt with the case of the Captain, but there was no sign of his grave in the nullah near the fought-over battlefield. His name, however, was kept and watched for reference, and, ten years later, his body was found and identified by a rough inscription that must have been put up in haste above him by an unknown hand when he was first buried.

Cases like these, however, mean no more than following up definite trails. The disentangling of circumstantial evidence - all possibly false but cruelly convincing - was more complicated. Two men, in an observation post near Festubert, were surprised by the enemy at the moment that one of them had handed over a home letter of his own to his companion to read. The companion was killed, found later, with the letter on him, and buried under the name and regimental number of the letter's address. Long afterwards, it came out that the man of that name was alive and discharged. He was found ; he told his story of the transfer of the letter just as the post was attacked, and of his own escape. He added that the error in burial had been known at the time, but, in the pressure of war, had never been rectified. His information was definite, for he remembered the contents of the letter, and the correction was made. Estates may have changed hands on less substantial proof than that which this mere accident had fabricated.

A parallel case was one of a wrecked tank at Monchy, with three of its crew dead and one of these unrecognisable. They were buried where they were found. Later, a grave was located under the name of a man who had come out of the tank alive. From him it was learned that he had left his kit in the tank as he got clear, and was sure that it had been assigned to the unrecognisable one of the dead. By his aid the two other graves were found and the identity of the third man settled. Here a living witness could rebut circumstantial evidence, but where all witnesses were dead, searchers could only register in accordance with what they found. Too often the best they did was no more than "Unknown Soldier" or "Unknown N.C.O" of such and such a battalion, Dominion, or branch of the Service.

The father of a private in a Highland regiment, whose grave, though it had been reported at the time, could not be found, besought the Commission, at last, that they should send to France the chaplain who had read the service over his boy and seven of his companions. This was done, but with no great belief that a chaplain was likely to succeed nine years after the end of the War where all exhumation parties had failed. But when he came out, he steered straight across all that changed country of 1927, almost directly to the very spot where the eight men lay, even as he had seen them laid.

A son fell at Neuve Chapelle, and was not found. So his father bought a plot of land from the French, and put up a memorial somewhere, as he believed, near the place. Seven years after the Armistice, the boy's body was found within 100 yards of that monument. Last, and most astounding of all, was the case of another young officer, where precisely the same thing happened. When the long search was done and proven fruitless, the parents bought land for a memorial on the battlefield. In digging for its foundations men found him.

The Chinese corps contributed some grim humour to the life of their working-camps, where they turned their hands to everything, from cutting down forests for trench props to lorry loading and railway construction. The Mills bomb impressed them, at first, as a superior kind of firework, and the tale runs that it was thought a rare jest to hand one to a new comrade, and tell him that if he took the pin out and held it to his ear he would hear it tick. (The practice, however, was discouraged.) They had their own views as to their funeral arrangements, which is why their 1,800 dead, nearly half of whom are in Noyelles-sur-Mer Cemetery, lie beneath headstones the same shape as ours, but with inscriptions in Chinese, cut by artists of their own race, with tools supplied by the Commission. The texts, of four or five characters apiece, are said to come from the Chinese Classics. They follow the man's number in his Labour Corps, and run to the effect that he "fought nobly" or "bore the weight of the war, and is entitled to respect." The names of Indian and other Asiatic troops stand lettered in English, with that of their corps, on the same uniform pattern headstones. They must include every race in the Peninsula, and at Meerut Cemetery, above Boulogne, their ashes have a special high-walled resting place, of an austere beauty all its own.


Wooden Crosses - Equality in Service and Death

Immediately after the granting of their Royal Charter in 1917 the Commission entered upon consideration of the principles which should govern the permanent marking of the graves and the construction of War Cemeteries. The vice-chairman reported that among the Armies in the Field there was an increasing and overwhelming desire that an equal honour, irrespective of rank or other distinction, should be shown in the treatment of all graves, and that by Army Orders in the different War Areas the erection of individual headstones had been prohibited pending the Commission's decision. Temporarily all graves were marked by simple wooden crosses, with special forms of wooden memorials for non-Christian soldiers.

As these wooden crosses have become historical, and many of them have been sent home, and are now in the treasured possession of relatives, some account of how they were made on the spot may be interesting. Most units of the Army liked to make the crosses themselves for their fallen comrades, and by the end of the War many had evolved their own distinctive designs. A collection of these would be at least as interesting as that of the divisional signs or regimental badges. But practically it was out of the question for any unit to provide more than a small proportion of what was needed. Therefore the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries had to furnish by far the larger number. A simple type was designed, of good proportions and construction, and a constant supply was obtained from such French carpenters as were still to be found in villages here and there. A certain quantity were made in the workshops of the Royal Engineers; they were then distributed at centres near the front. As the crosses had often to be sent to divisional or battalion headquarters at very short notice, sometimes during heavy fighting, with prompt advantage taken of any transport bound for the destination, painting the inscriptions was, even if paint had been procurable, impracticable. So use was made of what are known as the "slot machines" which are installed on railway platforms and other public places in this country; these furnished rapidly a stamped inscription on an aluminium tape which was affixed to the cross by brass or copper nails.

As they have been replaced by the headstones, they have been given only to the relatives who had asked for them and had first claim to them, or to Toc H or other such institutions. The remainder have been burnt and the ashes strewn over the cemeteries. Many wooden crosses are seen today on the walls or in the porches of village churches and in memorial buildings where relatives have deposited them.


The Headstones - Cross of Sacrifice and the Stone

This headstone stands 2ft. 8in. above ground, is 1ft. 3in. broad and 3in. thick. On its face are carved a specially designed reproduction of the badge which the soldier wore in his cap, the name, military rank, and age, a Cross or other appropriate religious emblem (e.g., the six-pointed Star of David for a soldier of the Jewish faith), and at the foot a text or other personal tribute chosen by the relatives. To meet a widely expressed desire relatives are given the opportunity of providing this personal inscription at their own cost, but no charge is made when they cannot afford to pay it.

Of all these headstones that with which the deepest note of tragedy is associated is the memorial to soldiers who have not been identified - a headstone of absolutely the same shape and outline as the others, but for inscription bearing the words "A Soldier of the Great War," then a Cross and, beneath, "Known unto God."

By agreement with the Dominions all these headstones (with the exception of some made on the spot for cemeteries in Italy) have been made in Great Britain by British labour and of British stone, the most generally used being Portland or Hopton Wood. In the cemeteries the headstones are cemented into slots in concrete beams and thus held permanently in an upright position. By calling for tenders all over the United Kingdom the Commission have been able to distribute the manufacture of the headstones among a large number of firms, no fewer than 157 having been employed in all, but in spite of this the output has rarely exceeded 2,000 a week, and the final contract for headstones required abroad was not placed until May of this year.

Groups of these headstones, varying from forty to 11,000, formed a cemetery. It was obvious that central monuments also were required to express not only the community of sacrifice and the exclusive fellowship which differentiates these burial-grounds from all others, but also the sentiment underlying and inspiring this commemoration by the Empire of those who fell on her behalf. There are two of these monuments which have become known as the Stone of Remembrance and the Cross of Sacrifice, names whose origin cannot be traced, but which took shape in the approval of the relatives themselves. The Stone of Remembrance is a monolith weighing seven tons and is as durable as any single work of man can be; it bears the inscription, "Their name liveth for evermore," and is placed in all the larger cemeteries.

The great Cross (the largest type is 24ft. high), standing on a massive octagonal base, with the bronze sword suspended on its shaft, was adopted as the mark of British War Cemeteries throughout the world, and is placed in all cemeteries save those in the mountains of Italy and on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Of the headstones, the Cross of Sacrifice, and the Stone of Remembrance, it is possibly the headstone which the imagination of those who have seen them in all parts of the world follows most naturally into the future. Throughout France and Belgium, in South Africa, Mesopotamia, East Africa, in cemeteries in Great Britain, in the churchyards of Quebec and on the remote shores of Klondyke, in every part of the world under the British flag, and in most foreign countries, these War headstones are to be found. Even if the cemeteries disappear in the centuries to come there will be no part of the world in which these headstones do not continue to tell the story of the British Empire in the Great War. Will any printed records outlast them?


The Records - The Difficulties of Identification

The records of the dead contain the foundations on which the whole superstructure of the Commission's work has been raised. It is a stroke of peculiar good fortune that the Commission have been able to retain, for the completion of these records, the services of the officer who was mainly responsible for collecting and collating them during the greater part of the War. His department began as, and still is, the authority for deciding the identity of a grave, registering its existence, and ultimately recording its exact locality, so that even if the external marking were lost it could be traced. As to identification, the Commission has been justified over and over again in having adopted the policy of telling the relatives the truth, however hard, when there has been anything but conclusive evidence.

But the returns of burial or reburial were all, from August 1916, onwards, collected and sifted in London. Cases were found in which a man was reported in two graves; others in which only a surname was known, or a regimental number, or merely rank and unit. Other cases came to light in which there was no trace that such a man had ever served in the unit in question. These, and similar difficulties, were solved by knowledge of the movements of units; comparison of the dead of a unit in the area where the body was found with the known graves of that unit, eliminating factor after factor, until one possible soldier is left to claim the grave; by correspondence with relatives about initialled rings or wrist watches; by correspondence with a live man who had exchanged his disk; by the tracing of an old regimental number under which a man had served in another unit; and in a hundred other ways.

And sometimes, in the weekly list of British bodies recovered from the old battlefields even in this present year, there may be four men recovered from one place. One, for example, has a disk with the name and unit of Private Smith, one is a lance-corporal, two are unidentified. But a chaplain's return is found in the records which reports the burial of Lance-Corporal Jones, the same Private Smith, and two other named men at a map reference corresponding with the grave now discovered. The grave of the lance-corporal and Private Smith are now duly recorded, and marked by single headstones; the other two, at the least, will have a "joint grave" with their names on it. Actual instances are given elsewhere.