The national characteristics of cemeteries

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French graveyards

The French law of 29 December 1915 called for the creation of national cemeteries to bring together the bodies of soldiers who "died for France", with perpetual graves maintained at the expense of the State. However a law passed in July 1920 authorized bodies to be returned to families who requested them, to be buried in family vaults, and this was the case for roughly thirty per cent of the bodies identified––some 250,000 men. In total, France has 265 cemeteries which hold 730,000 identified and unidentified soldiers.

In the period between the wars the French state, under pressure from veteran associations, was responsible for setting up military cemeteries even though it was a ruined country and subject to the heavy financial burden of helping the wounded, widows and orphans, as well as rebuilding the many towns and villages which had been destroyed during the fighting.

French cemeteries were built to practical rather than architectural imperatives, which explains their mediocre appearance. The were built according to industrial principles, cheap and in series. The plans were drawn up by technicians from the Pensions Ministry and based on very brief instructions set out in a circular, dated 24 February 1927, which made no reference to any architectural message.

A standard layout was adopted in 1928 and was to be used on all sites. The French flag would be the central point of the composition, offering a justification for the sacrifice of the citizens who "Died for France", as illustrated by the impressive cemetery in Neuville-Saint-Vaast. The graves would be set out in rows in a reflection of rational thought, reconstituting army lines. The only touch of bright colour would be provided by red rose bushes.

There are four types of emblems to be found in French military cemeteries: Latin crosses, Muslim headstones (the name of the deceased is preceded by a phrase in Arabic: "Here lies"), Jewish headstones and headstones for other religions or freethinkers (France is the only nation to have created a special headstone for agnostics or freethinkers). In the design of its cemeteries, the French republic reasserted the principle of the secular state: freedom of belief and thought. A plaque identifies the deceased and bears the inscription “Mort pour la France” (died for France) and regulations forbid any lavish adornments or additions likely to create a distinction between the graves.

In all 160,000 soldiers from France's colonies fought under the French flag during the Great War and 30,000 of them died. Those whose bodies could be identified and who were Muslims (the faith of most of them) were placed beneath special headstones, sometimes grouped together in separate plots.


British cemeteries

After the first few weeks of fighting, during which the bodies of those killed were repatriated, the British decided to bury their dead on site, for practical reasons relating to the cost of transport, as well as to respect the principle of equality for the known and the unknown dead. After the war, except for a few cases in which some cemeteries were concentrated into one, the war cemeteries were made permanent. This explains why there are such a large number of British cemeteries and their close proximity to one another. The British chose this solution as a mark of respect to the soldiers’ bodies. They also adhered to the traditions of certain ethnic groups fighting in their armies, for instance, the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial bears the names of the Indian soldiers whose bodies were cremated. Many British soldiers were also buried in special plots within French municipal cemeteries.

Three British architects supervised and directed the development of the Commonwealth cemeteries in the period just after the Great War: Reginald Bloomfield, Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens. Many young architects who took part in the conflict between 1914 and 1918 worked under their supervision. The British cemeteries are basically gardens, a reconstitution of the paradise lost where Man once lived in peace and harmony with nature. Trees, bushes and flowers add colour and scent through the seasons.

In British cemeteries the graves are sometimes arranged in what appears to be random order, facing different directions. In cemeteries at the front, this would be due to the original position of the graves.

Sometimes the headstones touch each other. This is most often the case for soldiers killed in the same trench (for example in the Owl Trench Cemetery at Hébuterne and the Mindel Trench British Cemetery at Saint-Laurent-Blangy.

The British decided to mark the graves of soldiers, whether known or unknown, with very simple headstones. The family of each identified soldier was asked which religious emblem they would like to have engraved: a cross, Star of David or a Muslim symbol. In addition, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission gave each family the opportunity to have an epitaph engraved at the bottom of the headstone, to a maximum of 66 letters; however the service was not free, a charge of 3 1/2 pence per letter was made and many thought this to be penny-pinching on the part of the Commission. The New Zealand Government decided that there could be no epitaph fitting enough to express their feelings of grief. Rudyard Kipling undertook to select "standard’" epitaphs such as "For God, King and Country", "So be it", and so on. The personal epitaphs are extremely diverse, from the banal to the highly moving, such as this one: "Oh why are we dead, we youth, all ye that pass by, forget not".

Sir Reginald Bloomfield designed the first three cemeteries, including the one at Laventie. He was enthusiastic about horticulture and had previously designed parks and gardens. He gave the English cemeteries their peaceful, pastoral nature. He drew up the plans for 120 cemeteries in France and Belgium, including the Menin Gate at Ypres. He also designed the "Cross of Sacrifice" to be erected in cemeteries containing more than forty graves. Ranging in size from 4.5 to 9 metres high, the front of the cross shows a bronze sword, St. George's sword, pointing downwards as a sign of mourning. The symbol is a complex one, evoking the military nature of the place, the fight against injustice and evil, the weapon of heroes and knights (Saint George slaying the dragon, on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial) in their fight against barbarity and paganism.

Sir Edwin Lutyens and his teams designed 126 cemeteries in France and Belgium. He was a traditional architect who sought to create a typically British style. The cemeteries he designed had to be part of the landscape and visible from the outside (a requisite of all British cemeteries) and contain a combination of stone features and vegetation. Much of his work was done with the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll who inspired the choice of planted borders in front of the gravestones. Simple cottage garden plants such as roses and small flowering perennials were chosen. The soft, closely-mown, plain grass was chosen because it eliminated differences and encouraged peace. It was Lutyens who designed the War Stone or Stone of Remembrance to be erected in cemeteries with over 400 graves. Both sides of the monument bear a phrase chosen from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Old Testament) by Kipling: "Their name liveth for evermore".

German cemeteries (Soldatenfriedhöfe or "soldier cemeteries")

The German war graves commission, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), was finally allowed to intervene in German military cemeteries in France in 1926. Starting in 1919, the French War Graves Department demolished a large number of small cemeteries close to the front and concentrated the graves in larger cemeteries. At that time, these military graveyards were simple unfenced fields with wooden crosses; however in areas of the front where the death rate had been particularly high the VDK decided to establish new cemeteries and one of these was at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, the largest of them all with 36,000 graves.

The Treaty of Versailles had provided for German cemeteries to be placed under the guardianship of the French authorities (a state of affairs which lasted until 1966) which meant they had control over all the developments or permanent buildings undertaken by the VDK. The French authorities refused to return the bodies to their families. The German cemeteries were designed in the interwar years by architect Robert Tischler, a veteran of the Great War. He based his designs on two major principles: mourning and universal life. Due to the cramped nature of the concessions allocated by France, burials were carried out in large communal graves called "Comrades' Graves". Tischler took care to make the German cemeteries blend in with their environment, in particular fitting in with relief, as is clearly visible at Neuville-Saint-Vaast. Plants grow freely and trees are not pollarded. His choices were influenced by German mythology's concept of communion between Man and Nature The architecture of these cemeteries is austere but leaves a lot of room for trees to "watch over the eternal rest of the soldiers".

The cemeteries often give the impression of being in a forest. They feature stone walls and wrought iron gates and, in many cases, large stone crosses. Communal graves are marked by engraved slabs often combined with rough stone crosses. In the 1920s the VDK used wooden crosses with a zinc plate, and sometimes stone slabs laid on the ground, to mark individual graves. In the 1950s the decision was taken to generalize the use of erect crosses to give a better visual portrayal of the extent of the slaughter, and for these to be made from durable materials (aluminium, cast iron or stone). Each cross or headstone bears the surname, first name, rank, date of birth and date of death of the soldier concerned.

It has often been suggested that it was the Treaty of Versailles which obliged the Germans to choose dark-coloured crosses for their military cemeteries; however if this was the case the rule was not strictly applied because in many cases white crosses were used. A more practical analysis suggests that the dark colour of many of the crosses in German military cemeteries corresponds to the need to protect the original wooden crosses with tar-based paints.

Many of the crosses which can be seen today, made from stone or steel, were installed in the 1950s and 1960s.As soon as Hitler rose to power the VDK was placed under official supervision. Remembrance of the Great War was a significant political issue for the new regime and it shifted emphasis on to the heroism of the soldiers and any aspect of reconciliation was removed. Furthermore the architect Tischler made no attempt to hide his strong sympathy for the Nazi regime. During the Second World War the VDK was placed at the disposal of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and in 1941 placed, albeit implicitly, under the guardianship of the Hitlerjugend or Hitler Youth.

The VDK was quickly reorganized after the chaos of 1945 and, in spite of his pro-Nazi stance, Tischler returned to his post. The German cemeteries which can be visited today are the fruit of structural work carried out in the 1920s but the main "funerary objects", the crosses, were for the most part designed after the Second World War. At the entrance to the largest graveyards stands a "memorial hall" which is in some cases decorated with sculptures or mosaics. In 1966 the emergence of the Europe Community and initiatives for Franco-German reconciliation led to an agreement between the two countries to suppress the application of Article 225 of the Treaty of Versailles and this placed the upkeep of German military cemeteries under the sole responsibility of the VDK. 

Yves LE MANER,
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France