Saturday, 28 March 2015

Pilgrimage

The Canadian cemetery at Contalmaison where
Private Howard Curtis is buried.
Visiting the battlefields of the First World War is very much a history lesson that is given through stone. Each cemetery and each name on a grave has a story to tell. The organization of the cemeteries themselves is a remarkable story given the powerful debate about what should be done with the hundreds of thousands of bodies that were buried haphazardly across the fields of Belgium and Northern France through the course of the war.

You will, I am sure, be glad to learn that your son's body was brought back from the front line for burial. The cemetery in which he was buried is very neat and well kept, provided for the men of the 2nd Battalion. The funeral service was conducted by me on Monday, October 9, at 3:15 p.m. Every mark of respect and honour that could be shown under very rigid active service conditions was observed. I regret that army regulations prevent me from giving particulars about the location of the grave. I have marked the spot with a cross and on enquiry, after the war, it could be easily located, should you or any other members of your family wish to visit the grave.”   Maj. D.V. Warner , 2nd Cdn Battalion, December, 1916

There must have been some small comfort to his mother that her son William, whom she had not seen since he signed up in September of 1914, was buried in a cemetery well behind the lines - the gains made in the Somme offensive would hold until the waning months of the war, when the Germans would recapture a lot of the ground in their Spring Offensive of 1918. But most of the Battlefield Cemeteries, such as the 2nd Canadian Cemetery, Sunken Road, around Contalmaison, where William Curtis was buried, remained in tact.   

 The Ramparts Cemetery, named for its proximity to the
walls of Ypres, is one of the most serene in the area. As a
battlefield cemetery many of the graves are near the original
location where the soldier was buried. 
Many of the letters of condolence written by soldiers to the parents of friends who were killed give descriptions of the cemetery in which they were buried in the hope that it would give them some peace.  A year before Howard Curtis was killed he wrote to the parents of his mate, Bert Carpenter, describing how his grave had some flowers on it and two wooden crosses” and how they “were going to put a fence around it, but were called away to another trench”.  

The idea that the men who died in the fighting were well looked after was important in dealing with those who wanted to repatriate loved ones after the war.  The International War Graves Commission was established to ensure that the dead were interred in suitable resting places so the public would accept the principle that soldiers would be buried where they fell. And hence, the cemeteries were maintained so visitors would be “struck first by their order and beauty, by the nobility of the plan, the profusion of flowers”

Poelcapelle Cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres - among the
graves are those of seven men, killed while clearing
the battlefield in October 1919.
The pilgrimage to the religious sites of the battlefields started almost immediately after the war, with 60,000 battlefield tourists making the trip in 1919, and  140,000 ten years later. With so many relatives visiting it was essential that the cemeteries reflected the sacrifice.

Traveling to France for the unveiling of the Vimy memorial in 1936, one visitor from Nova Scotia remarked that “the horror of so many graves is taken away by the beauty of the cemetery, and the flowers are marvellous.”

The second principle of the Commission’s was that there would be a standard headstone - made of Portland stone with a “gently curved crown”, thus, everyone who fought and died, whether a general or a private, was treated equally; symbolically, “no sacrifice had been greater or more selfless than the other”. 


The grave of George Dunn in
Ramparts Cemetery.
George Dunn, a Sapper with the 3rd Tunneling Company, who had given up his job as a farmer to enlist in November, 1915, was serving in the area of the Ypres Menin Road in mid-September 1917. He had just returned from leave at the Second Army Rest Camp at Ambleteuse, near Boulogne: it was two weeks in which "he had slept in an airy tent away from the sounds of the guns” ; he would, no doubt, have ventured in to the two nearby towns, gone to the cinema, and bathed naked in the ocean - quite likely marveling at the French women who would come down to the beach to sell fruit. Now, back with his unit, he was cleaning out German dugouts, refitting them with flooring and bunks in anticipation of the Canadian Corp's arrival. 

On the 20th of September, George was assigned to a section that was  building plank roads in the area. It was a dangerous task because of the constant shelling of the roads;  the party sustained heavy casualties and George Dunn was killed.

Relatives of those who had died fighting in the British forces were charged three and a half pence per letter to have a personal inscription engraved on the headstones, and the maximum length that would be allowed was 66 letters. The prevailing thought was that levying a charge would create more of a personal stake in the grave. The government of New Zealand simplified matters by not allowing any personal inscriptions.  

Mrs George Cutter, living in St. Johnsburg, Vermont was saved from paying for the inscription that she added to her brother’s grave, as the Canadian Government waived the requirement to pay for them: "Father in thy gracious keeping, leave we now this soldier sleeping."

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