Saturday, June 03, 2006

John Keegan on the British tradition of burying soldiers where they fall

British military historian John Keegan's essay on the how and why of British military cemeteries abroad. And why the tradition is nearly finished.
[...] Thus grew up the principles on which the War Graves Commission policy was founded. It laid down that those who died together should be buried together - though, out of respect for soldierly sacrifice, each casualty should be individually commemorated, in a separate grave or by a separate inscription on a joint memorial if burial were not possible.

[War Graves director Fabian] Ware also stipulated that there should be a standard headstone. He further stipulated that the inscription on the headstone should reveal only name, service number, age at death, date and place of death, regimental badge and an appropriate religious symbol - a cross, Star of David or Muslim device. At the bottom of the headstone, space was left for the family to place a short personal inscription, if desired.

The result, as the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the commission's cemeteries well know, is extraordinarily dignified and moving. Large or small, the cemeteries perfectly fulfil their purpose to commemorate, honour and console. A glance in the visitors' book testifies to the success of the commission's work. It is not only Britons who write their phrases of appreciation. So powerful is the atmosphere of the war cemeteries that words of respect are written even by Germans in the war cemeteries of Germany, where the dead of bomber command's strategic bombing campaign are interred. [....]
The cemeteries are very moving, as are all military cemeteries.