Is your creativity enriched or curtailed by Twitter’s 140-character limit? Imagine the challenge to families of those killed in WW1, asked to keep an epitaph for their loved one to 66 characters.
The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission decided not to repatriate hundreds of thousands bodies. Rather, the dead were buried with their comrades close to where they fell. A standard stone marks each grave, regardless of rank. But next of kin were invited to add a personal inscription. About half took up the offer. Together, these epitaphs form a striking record of grief and memory.
Eric McGeer’s Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them: Canadian Epitaphs of the Great War joins the few examinations of these tributes. His sampling of about 1000 epitaphs “reconnect us with the emotions, reactions and attitudes of the people left in the immediate aftermath of the Great War to confront this loss, to make sense of what had happened, and to honour a debt of remembrance.” (p 10)
We step into another world, where familiarity with the Bible, hymns, poetry and the classics offer words to convey the range of feelings.
’TIS HARD TO PLANT IN SPRING AND NEVER REAP THE AUTUMN YIELD
Private Harry Lilley, 60th Battalion, 9 April 1917 (age 24), Écoivres Military Cemetery, Mont-St. Eloi (from Rest, Father Abram J. Ryan)
SCATTER THOU THE PEOPLE THAT DELIGHT IN WAR
Private Reginald George Aldridge, 5th Battalion, 16 March 1918 (age 25), Bully-Grenay Communal Cemetery, British Extension (Psalm 68:20)
The lives of the dead are remembered … birthplace, home town, lineage, education, profession, character.
A LOVER OF CHILDREN AND FLOWERS. A GOOD FRIEND AND PATRIOTIC.
Private John Delaney, 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, 5 June 1917 (age 37), Lillers Communal Cemetery
ONLY A BOY PLAYING A MAN’S PART, GIVING HIS LIFE FOR FREEDOM’S CAUSE
Private Douglass Clark, 1st Battalion, 5 April 1917 (age 17), Nine Elms Military Cemetery, Thelus
Languages and origins show the reach of Canada’s population from around the world. Connection to Canada is revealed.
O CANADA, HE STOOD ON GUARD FOR THEE
Private Reginald George Box, 16th Battalion, 1 October 1918 (age 20), Sancourt British Cemetery
Themes emerge – loss, mourning, regret, consolation, pride, duty, heroism, hope, love.
WE LOVED HIM IN LIFE TOO LITTLE, WE LOVE HIM IN DEATH TOO WELL.
Private Joel Arthur Deeprose, 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, 31 March 1917 (age 20), Écoivres Military Cemetery, Mont-St. Eloi
O FRANCE, BE KIND AND KEEP GREEN FOR ME MY SOLDIER’S GRAVE. R.I.P. MOTHER
Private Robert John Williams, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 1 July 1916 (age 21), Knightsbridge Cemetery, Mesnil-Martinsart
Row on row of graves show the mass destruction, but the dedications bear witness to the loss for each family. For some, the dedication is also in memory of another son in an unknown grave.
Today’s readers still recognize the lines chosen from John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. But few would now know the origin of the lines on a grave in Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension: In years to come when time is olden, Canada’s dream shall be of them. Gunner Donald Lachlan McKinnon, Canadian Field Artillery, died on 17 September 1917 at age 25. His parents took their inspiration from Helena Coleman’s poem, Autumn, 1917:*
Are there young hearts in France recalling
These dream-filled, blue Canadian days,
When gold and scarlet flames are falling
From beech and maple set ablaze?
Dream they of Canada crowned and golden,
Flushed with her Autumn diadem?
In years to come when time is olden,
Canada’s dream shall be of them—
Shall be of them who gave for others
The ardour of their radiant years;—
Your name in Canada s heart, my brothers,
Shall be remembered long with tears!
Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them is a beautiful book. The epitaphs and McGeer’s analysis are framed by Steve Douglas’s photos of cemeteries and monuments and by paintings from the Beaverbrook Art Collection at the Canadian War Museum. The omission of details like the location of each grave limit its use as a stand-alone reference tool. (But those wanting more information can search the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site or national records like the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.)
Other compilations of WW1 epitaphs:
Sarah Wearne, Epitaphs of the Great War (The Somme) and Epitaphs of the Great War (Passchendaele). Wearne also highlights a Great War epitaph each day: @WWInscriptions.
Trefor Jones, On Fame’s Eternal Camping Ground: A Study of First World War Epitaphs in the British Cemeteries of the Western Front.
John Laffin, We Will Remember Them: AIF Epitaphs of World War 1.
Read my interview with Eric McGeer here.
*Autumn, 1917 (excerpt) in Marching Men: War Verses