When the First World War came to an end, more than a million service personnel from Britain and the Empire had died.
Of these, some 750,000 had fallen on the battlefields of Belgium and France.
Along a hundred miles of what had been the Western Front, British cemeteries marked the places where the fighting had occurred. In some cases these were a few scattered wooden crosses, in some places they were vast hillsides of the dead.
Rudyard Kipling, whose only son had died in the war, called them ‘Silent Cities’ of the dead, a place where the memory of those who had fallen lived on.
But what to do with these hundreds of locations, and graves marked with simple wooden crosses?
There was a desire to perpetuate their memory, but the crosses would not last forever. Initially the plan was replace wood with stone, but Kipling, who was a member of the then Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission knew that from his travels through the Empire not every man or woman was necessarily a Christian.
He preferred the idea of a ‘memorial stone’ or headstone, and this is what was adopted.
For every soldier with a marked grave the headstone would show their Regiment or Corps cap badge, their name and military details plus date of death and religious symbol of their faith. The family could add the age, full Christian names and there was space for a personal inscription, although this had to be paid for.
Everything else, the erection, construction, and maintenance of the Silent Cities would be paid for by the government. The only instance was on ‘uniformity in death’, so that the grave of an ordinary soldier would be the same as that of a General.
Work on the cemeteries began and three ‘experimental’ cemeteries were made on the Somme and at le Tréport. King George V visited these in 1922 and having given his seal of approval, work began in earnest and the permanent cemeteries were made.
By the time the last one was finished in 1938, only a year before the outbreak of another World War, more than 2,000 had been built from the Belgian coast to beyond the Somme.
To find out more about how an entire generation was memorialised in stone, and discover more about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission today, join us on a unique tour to look at the history of the Silent Cities.
In partnership with the CWGC, this tour will offer special visits, behind-the-scenes insights into their work, and you will get to meet their historians, young interns and gardeners.
We will also learn how they continue to find and recover the dead from WW1, and what methods they use to identify them.
Leger Holidays new Silent Cities tours is a fascinating journey through history and remembrance, so join us on this one-off tour departing in August 2020.
If you want to understand our nation’s and your family’s history, there is no better way than to actually visit the battlefield sites and the places where history was made. Walk in the footsteps of heroes on a Leger Holidays Battlefield Tour with Specialist Guide.
We would recommend our All Quiet on the Western front or Pals on the Somme tours or you can choose from more than 80 WWI and WWII, Anniversary tours, Napoleonic and American Civil War battlefield tours.
Leger’s Battlefield tours are truly inspirational journeys of remembrance and discovery.
For more information on Leger's Battlefield Tours please visit www.legerbattlefields.co.uk or call 01709 385 900.
Paul Reed, Head Battlefield Guide, Leger Holidays