Working as guide for Backroads Touring has given me many privileges, but the greatest treat is to accompany a relative to the grave of a fallen soldier, one of the many from around the world that lie at peace in the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in Belgium and Northern France.
Each case is different and no two are quite the same, but let me explain how the process all comes together.
Many of our battlefield clients come from across all of the English speaking world, but predominately from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These nations were in their infancy at the time of the First World War and in the majority of cases, their men folk undertook the long journey to fight in the war with great enthusiasm and excitement. They were not aware of what they were going to have to face in the trenches, and men from around the old Empire played their part in the great battles that are now part of our history: the Somme, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Amiens, as well as a host of smaller less well documented actions. The casualties were appalling, on all sides, and the notion of dead soldiers being repatriated to their home country was simply not possible or practical, so, wherever possible, cemeteries were created close to dressing stations, base hospitals and, almost inevitably, close to the front lines. John McCrae’s poem, so well known, particularly by Canadians speaks of the ‘crosses, row on row’; these were the first cemeteries.
Incredibly, amongst the turmoil and carnage of battle, soldiers who had been buried had their details recorded, not only for the benefit of the next of kin but also for the day when the war would inevitably end and the temporary cemeteries could be turned into proper places of remembrance. For many years, the location of the final resting place of soldiers was contained in the paper archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, Berkshire, accessible only by a written request, but with the advent of the internet, all the records were transferred to the web, so now anyone can log in and find the details of a loved one, including the cemetery location and, even more importantly, the exact location of the grave, through a very simple to understand recording system.
So, nowadays, the visitor can look at a map and realise that their relative is buried close to the route of the Backroads tour. At our booking stage, we always ask clients if they have any special places that they would like to visit and therefore as a guide, you have a notion of where you may be going as a special request. Once all the clients are safely on the minibus, I always double check to ensure that all requests, whether known at the time or not are mentioned, so that no one leaves the tour without having been to the specific spot that is significant to them. Invariably there are a few times when this is not possible – sometimes the location is just too far away, but in the majority of cases specific locations and cemeteries are on our route. Being such a small group, never more than 16 at a time, the other guests find themselves being wrapped up in the excitement of the journey, especially if there is some well known family history connected with the dead soldier. Although nearly one hundred years ago, many guests knew the sister or daughter of the man concerned; he may have been their great uncle or grandfather.
On arrival at the cemetery, whether it be a large one, the largest contains just under 12,000 war graves or one of the many smaller battlefield cemeteries which mark the chalk lands of the Somme, the first point of call is the cemetery register, located in a brass cupboard inset into the entrance wall of the cemetery.
Here are listed all the men buried in the cemetery and such details that were available at the time to record his death. Sometimes it is just his name and regiment; sometimes it gives his wife’s name, home address or school and maybe details of any awards for gallantry.
Next to each entry is the grave reference and in the front of the register is a plan of the cemetery. It is then just a straight forward matter to find the grave, remembering that each grave marker looks the same as another, at least from a distance. Only when close up can you see that soldier’s name, date of death, unit and the badge under which he fought – the Maple Leaf of Canada, the badge of the Australian Imperial Force or the Silver Fern of New Zealand. British soldiers are identified in the same manner, but with their regimental badge carved in to the headstone. At the bottom there is often, but not always a poignant inscription, the only thing on the headstone that is non military. Chosen by the family, the inscription could be as long as you liked, but when charged at 3½d a letter many were necessarily brief. Sometimes, briefness says it all – one Australian buried in Ypres has the simple inscription ‘Our Daddy’.
I have been touched by the amount of care that guests show when visiting these graves. Some bring wreaths, some bring mementoes from home; for many, it is the first time that any family member has had the ability to travel from Canada, Australia or New Zealand to pay their respects. I have even been privileged to hear one lady sing at the grave of her fallen relative. Other members of the group invariably want to hear whatever is known about the soldier, and within a few hours of guests meeting each other, they are already establishing a bond of friendship and camaraderie that has, at least on one occasion that I know of, continued past the end of the tour.
Whilst I and my fellow guides can give the history and show guests the museums, memorials and the landscape of the First World War, for me at least, it is about the men who fought in it; who endured things that we could not even begin to understand and, for the most part, did it because they knew they were right and they were fighting for something worthwhile. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has, as part of its mandate, the role of maintaining the war cemeteries in perpetuity. Many visiting for the first time are completely overawed by the care that is taken of the cemeteries – the headstones, grass, flowers and walls are kept in perfect condition and repaired or replaced as the effects of Mother Nature take hold.
It is humbling to know what these men did – it can be equally humbling to be with relatives who enjoy a life miles apart from the confusion and squalor of the trenches, but have an inextricable link with the past - a link which is tangible and forever preserved in France and Flanders.
To show your respects to those who have fallen in battle and encounter firsthand this overwhelming experience see our Battlefield Tours.