Differences in British and German attitudes to Commemoration

article by UKNIWM office volunteer Gabrielle Orton


   After my trip to Ypres some weeks back, I have been looking at the different national attitudes of Britain and Germany to commemoration, in terms of the layout and formation of the military cemeteries.


In the Ypres Salient alone, there are over 137 British military burial grounds, ranging from those like Ramparts cemetery, with only 200 graves, to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War cemetery in the world, with almost 12,000 graves and a memorial wall to the missing.  The vast number of British built cemeteries is partly due to the Belgian’s willingness to give the Allied forces, who fought for Belgium’s freedom, land to commemorate their war dead.  But the number and nature of British cemeteries throughout Europe also reflects the British public’s wish for a physical expression of the sacrifice made during war, a demand which was met by an official, uniform and sympathetic response from the British government, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


For the first time, nearly every local community in Britain was deeply affected by the devastating loss of human life from a single war.  The cemeteries and war memorials in Ypres emphasise this modern concept of sacrifice, for instance through the ‘cross of sacrifice’, designed by Blomfield, which can be found in every CWGC cemetery worldwide.  The sword on the cross associates the Christian symbolism of hope born from suffering, with the military role of the soldiers in the surrounding graves.  Even the Menin Gate in Ypres, which is a form of triumphal arch and has overtones of Imperial victory, does not lose sight of the deaths of individuals by the incised list of 54,896 names of missing WWI casualties.


The uniformity of the rows and rows of white gravestones in the CWGC plots, regardless of the casualty’s rank or place of birth, illustrates the development of equality during WWI.  Although the recognition of lower ranked soldiers can be seen in Boer war memorials, the ‘citizen’ nature of the army in WWI and the introduction of conscription in 1916 contributed to a change in attitude of society towards the treatment and commemoration of war dead.  This change can be detected in the British government’s policy of April 1915, to retain all bodies of casualties in France and Belgium, regardless of the rank or wealth of the families concerned.  In all, it is no coincidence that after ¾ million British soldiers died for their country, every man obtained the right to vote in 1918.


In contrast, Langemark German military cemetery has a strikingly different layout and atmosphere.  Though the land was originally leased for only 30 years, it was later granted on a permanent basis, as one of four German cemeteries in the Ypres Salient.  Starting as a small group of graves in 1915, it became a ‘collecting cemetery’ in 1954, eventually bringing the total number of burials to 44,234 (nearly 4 times the number at Tyne Cot.)


It is therefore partly due to the limited space available that the cemetery seems to lack the focus on the individual that the CWGC gravestones give; for example 8 soldiers are buried in each plot.  But it seems that it was almost part of Volksbund’s (German equivalent of the CWGC) policy; it was not until 1971 that grave markers were changed to give personal dates (before they had just grave numbers) and not until 1984 that Volksbund began researching and identifying some of the ‘unknown soldiers’ in the mass grave at the entrance.


But elements of the cemetery such as the mass grave known as ‘Kameraden Grab’ or Comrades’ Grave, seem to show more equality amongst soldiers.  For instance unlike the CWGC headstones, the still uniform grey granite grave markers in Langemark do not refer to regiments; instead there are divisional memorials at the sides of the cemetery surrounding the graves, giving an impression of a united German army, even in death.


Although the thick, dark, free standing tablets and the towering oak trees (traditionally symbolising strength) create a powerful image, there is inevitably an element of defeatism in the cemetery’s appearance.  Unlike the grand German memorial at Walhalla temple, made in the late 19th century, with its heroic busts, the Langemark cemetery has only the bronze statue of ‘Four Mourning Soldiers’ by Professor Emil Krieger. Though appropriate for such a sombre setting, the slightly abstract figures and the squat crosses dotted around the graves, seem to offer little hope for the future compared with say the elegant ‘cross of sacrifice’ or the smooth curves of the ‘stone of remembrance’ found in CWGC plots.


Although my trip to Ypres provided only a limited insight into these two countries’ attitudes to commemoration, it is clear from the architecture and layout of the cemeteries that they are very different, influenced obviously by the outcome of WWI and in Germany’s case the consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, including the prohibition of Germany from maintaining German military cemeteries outside their borders.  For Britain, WWI was part of the country’s gradual emergence as a modern democracy and one of the last wars of both Imperial and local importance.  But for Germany, WWI dealt a short term humiliating blow to its international strength and respectability and following WWII, many may have wished to forget commemoration, along with its military associations.


What other impressions have people of the British and German cemeteries?  I wonder if there is a marked difference in attitudes towards commemoration between the different countries in the allied forces as well?


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