Bayeux Cemetery, Normandy. D-Day 75.

Why The Fallen Of All Ranks Lie Side By Side In War Graves

A comradeship of arms: How the despair of national mourning inspired the collective memorial

Bayeux Cemetery, Normandy. D-Day 75.

In the lines of graves of the fallen, there is a uniformity in the row upon row of headstones that mark the final resting place of the thousands who gave their lives for our nation, our freedom – paying the ultimate sacrifice.

Many of the people who make a pilgrimage to one of the many war cemeteries or memorials that honour our war dead each year find themselves moved by the serenity and sense of regimented order of their surroundings as they reflect on the sheer number of tombstones and crosses to remember the dead.

However, moved by emotion as they may be, they are perhaps unaware of the purposefulness, behind the design and architecture, of that uniformity and the national mood that led to how we now honour and remember our Armed Forces at such mass burial sites.

These peaceful grounds, such as the largest Second World War cemetery in France – the Bayeux War Cemetery & Memorial, where veterans joined throngs of mourners to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6th earlier this year – have become central to our ceremonies of remembrance.

Commonplace as it now seems, paying homage to those who gave their lives for us – no matter if they were a soldier of the lower ranks or an officer, or whether they were rich or poor – is a phenomenon that has grown out of the horrors of the First World War and as a result of the collective grief that had consumed communities on a scale never before experienced.

The later losses of the Second World War ensured the concept of national sites of remembrance became part of the nation's psyche.

The First World War exacted such a degree of national mourning – as modern weapons and tactics inflicted unprecedented mass casualties – that it was felt the sacrifice was “worthy of commemoration” that reflected a greater sense of the “community of sacrifice” and a “service of common cause.”

Some of the initial impetus for such thinking came from the actions of soldiers themselves.

D-Day 75 barbed wire Normandy image: BFBS marketing commissioned graphic

In previous military campaigns of history, the resting places of fallen soldiers may not have even been marked by anything more notable than a makeshift cross, often in communal graves – it was generally only officers who were afforded the dignity of a permanent memorial, according to their wealth and their rank.

Soldiers began attempting to honour their fallen comrades in their own makeshift memorials – handmade crosses, mounds of rocks, or a tin hat placed on a makeshift grave as a mark of final respect.

As the losses of the First World War continued to take their toll, it was the diplomatic efforts of social reformer and newspaper editor Major General Sir Fabian Ware who became the inspiration behind the thinking that eventually led to the foundation of the Imperial War Graves Commission in May 1917, and the eventual rolling out of war cemeteries across other nations.

Ware commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frederic Kenyon, then Director of the British Museum, to devise an ideological approach to ‘soldiers’ cemeteries’ including the design and architecture. Kenyon’s response was a report to the Commission setting out a core ideology that placed equality and collective sacrifice at the heart of the thinking.

All communities, and a vast swathe of the families within those communities, had lost loved ones and been scarred by the losses of the First World War, so there was an underlying mood that ‘we were all in this together’ like never before.

In his 1918 report, Kenyon noted that it was ordained that ... 

“What was done for one should be done for all, and that all, whatever their military rank or position in civil life, should have equal treatment in their graves.”

It is this ideology that ensured that the headstones of the fallen were uniform – no one grave more grand than the other, soldier of the ranks and officer side by side, no grandeur to display wealth over and above the fallen from more humble backgrounds.

Bayeux Cemetery, Normandy. D-Day 75. BFBS Tim Humphries Photo.

As families could not bring home their loved-ones and mark their resting place - in a garden setting with flowers for instance - the war cemeteries would also incorporate in their design a space for flowering plants and shrubs in front of each headstone.

Summing up the emotions and collective grief that swept the national mood as a result of World War One, Kenyon in his report noted: “It is necessary to face the fact that this decision has given pain in some quarters, and pain which the Commissioners would have been glad to avoid.

“Not a few relatives have been looking forward to placing a memorial of their own choosing over the graves which mean so much to them; some have devoted much time and thought to making such a memorial beautiful and significant.

“Yet it is hoped that even these will realise that they are asked to join in an action of even higher significance.

“The sacrifice of the individual is a great idea and worthy of commemoration; but the community of sacrifice, the service of a common cause, the comradeship of arms which has brought together men of all ranks and grades - these are greater ideas, which should be commemorated in those cemeteries where they lie together, the representatives of their country in the lands in which they served.”

The notion of community of sacrifice was well established by the time the Second World War arrived.

There was also more preparedness for mass casualties.

The American Graves Registration Service, for instance, deployed teams on D-Day to land shortly after the first wave of troops hit the beaches at Normandy to remove fallen soldiers from the view of their comrades.

They were tasked with not only setting up temporary cemeteries as a collection point for the fallen and to register the dead, but also to ensure reinforcements heading for the beaches behind the first wave would not have their morale dented by the sight of their comrades' bodies.

Listen to William Moody talk about the significance of the Bayeux Cemetery to Tim Humphries in the audio above

The sense of 'community of sacrifice' is self evident at Bayeux, in the dignified lines of white headstones that each honour the individual but in a collective setting where they lie together with their comrades in arms.

William Moody, Sector Sector Supervisor Horticulture with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in an interview with BFBS Radio presenter Tim Humphries, explained a little of how the nationalities of those laid to rest at the cemetery in Bayeux shows the combined efforts of the international Allied forces to liberate Europe - but also reflects the losses of those they fought.

He said that among the more than 4,000 graves, soldiers of many of the Allied nations were laid to rest.

Mr Moody, whose family have been associated with the Commission for more than 50 years, said: “You have got some Russians. You have got some Germans – you’ve got nearly 500 Germans here.

“We have got some Italians. We’ve got some Czechoslovakians.

“We’ve got a lot of Polish, who served in the Royal Air Force and who are buried here as well.

“And three French graves.”

Bayeux Cemetery, Normandy. D-Day 75. BFBS Tim Humphries Photo.

Speaking of some of the work that goes into maintaining the cemetery, the horticulturist described a planting scheme in line with the uniformity of the war graves ideology.

He said: “We have got a planting scheme for every site around the world which is the same.

“We always have plants in front of headstones – at least two plants.

“We’ve got roses there, and we try to have a colour scheme – which flowers from the spring to late autumn.

“Our cemetery looks - if you want, like a garden as if they were still alive - as they would back home."

Mr Moody, speaking ahead of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June, said every anniversary or memorial ceremony was always a deeply moving occasion.

“When you see the veterans coming in, it’s quite a big emotion for everybody.

“Because the of most importance is the veterans.

“They can hardly walk, and they are trying to lift themselves from the wheelchair to lay a wreath.

“I think that is a lesson to us.

“We need to remember them. The cemetery is a part of the remembrance.”

Bayeux Cemetery, Normandy. D-Day 75. BFBS Tim Humphries Photo.

Bayeux did not witness the scale of warfare during the D-Day battle to retake Normandy as other parts of the region but its significance in the history of the operation is cemented in legend.

The French town was the first location of strategic importance to be liberated.

Not only that, but the surrounding districts were scattered with hospitals from where the fallen were brought.

As mentioned previously, the site of remembrance is the largest Commonwealth cemetery of the Second World War in France.

It was completed in 1952 and sites 4,144 graves, 338 of those the resting places of unidentified fallen soldiers, and also including 500 war graves of other nationalities.

Many of the fallen buried in the grounds are German, commemorated alongside the other nationalities at the site - one of 18 cemeteries in the Normandy region maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The Bayeux Memorial stands opposite the cemetery and bears the names of more than 1,800 men of the Commonwealth land forces who died in the early stages of the D-Day campaign.

They died during the landings in Normandy, during the intense fighting in Normandy itself, and during the advance to the River Seine in August.

The thinking of the design presented by Kenyon is evident in the cemetery grounds.

In his suggestion for headstones, he said: “The principle of equality and uniformity of treatment having been adopted, there are two main alternative methods by which it may be carried out:

       “(1) either the individual graves will be undistinguished (except perhaps by an inconspicuous number), and the names of the dead will be commemorated on a single inscription, placed in some convenient position in the cemetery; or

       “(2) each grave will have its own headstone, of uniform dimensions, on which the name of the dead will be carved, with his rank, regiment, and date of death.

“In the first alternative, the cemetery would have the appearance of a small park or garden, composed of turf or flower beds divided by paths, planted with shrubs or trees, and in no way recognizable as a cemetery, except by the presence of some central monument or monuments.”

How nations now join together to pay their respects to the fallen is testament to the determined efforts of Sir Fabian Ware that all those who died fighting for our freedoms should be given the dignified recognition they deserve for ever more.

It also honours the hopes of Kenyon, who in the conclusion to his report, said:

“It is in the hope that the scheme here put forward will secure for all time the permanence of this tribute and its embodiment in a memorial worthy of the Empire and of the sons (and daughters also) who have given their lives for it.”