The First World War – ‘the War to end all Wars’ – finished with three-quarters of a million British, Imperial and Dominion dead. Very few communities could be termed ‘Thankful Villages’ to which all their inhabitants returned; across England only 53 and in Dorset only one – tiny Langton Herring.
With the scale of the slaughter, the repatriation of the dead was plainly impossible; they would remain where they fell in France, Belgium, Gallipoli, East Africa and a host of other places – this was the first ‘world war’. The question therefore arose of what could be done to commemorate those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Above all, it was felt that there needed to be a symbol, a single grave or monument to whom all could relate.
On the suggestion of an Army padre, Rev David Railton, four of the British dead, one from each of the major battlefields of Ypres, Arras, the Aisne and the Somme, were disinterred and a single soldier chosen at random by two British officers, Brigadier General Wyatt and Colonel Gell, the remainder being reburied in the cemetery of St Pol.
The chosen individual, his coffin covered by the Union flag that the Rev Railton had used as an altar cloth during the war, was transported across the English Channel by the destroyer HMS Verdun.
On 11 November 1920, the Unknown Warrior was carried on a gun carriage through London, pausing at the Cenotaph in Whitehall as that monument was unveiled by King George V. The coffin was then carried into Westminster Abbey by pallbearers including Field Marshals, Admirals and an Air Marshal and a service held for his burial; a single unknown soldier symbolising the loss of all.
In practically every town and village, war memorials of different sizes and degrees of sophistication sprang up. Dorchester has its main memorial at the bottom of South Street, scene of the annual Remembrance Service, but several others exist at the churches on High West Street, a tablet on the wall of the old post office, designed by Thomas Hardy, and of course the memorial to German prisoners of war who died in the Poundbury camp.
In Fordington churchyard, this memorial depicts a German soldier in low relief with the legend “Hier ruhe Deutcher Krieger in fremder erde doch unvergessen” – “Here lie German soldiers in foreign earth but not forgotten”.
As peace resumed and the Continent returned to something resembling normality, many relatives of the fallen felt the need to visit the graves of loved ones, or at least to see where they had served and died. Responding to this, something of an industry grew up around running battlefield visits and accommodating the many making pilgrimages to Ypres, Arras and the Somme.
Gradually the Commonwealth, then the Imperial, War Graves Commission took over the running of cemeteries. Wooden markers were replaced with white Portland gravestones and the cemeteries themselves, designed by some of the most renowned architects of the day and beautifully maintained – as they still are – became places of peace and honour.
Of the huge number of cemeteries on the Western Front – over 300 on the Ypres Salient alone – there is infinite variety. The largest British military cemetery is Tyne Cot with 11,900 graves, only 306 of which are identified. One of the smallest is the R.E. Grave at Railway Wood, overlooking the Menin Road. This small cemetery contains 12 graves, mostly Royal Engineers, who died in a mine tunnel on the site.
In a sense, those with a grave to visit were perhaps lucky; many of the dead were unidentifiable, buried with a stone reading “A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God” or were simply never recovered and still lie in the fields of Flanders or Picardy.
For these families, lacking a graveside to visit, some recognition was provided by the erection of memorials listing the names of the missing at Thiepval on the Somme, at Arras, on Vimy Ridge and in other places.
Perhaps the best known of these is the Menin Gate. Standing over the main thoroughfare out of ‘Wipers’ to the front line, the neo-classical monument bears panels listing over 54,000 names. At 8pm every day, buglers of the Ieper Town Fire Brigade sound the Last Post beneath the vast stone arch, a ceremony which moves many onlookers to tears.
Perhaps the last word should be left to Field Marshal Lord French. At the unveiling of the Menin Gate in 1927 and speaking of those whose names it bears, he exclaimed, “They are not lost, they are here”.
Dorchester’s annual Remembrance Service will take place on Sunday 11 November at the War Memorial at 11am. Dorchester Town Council will also be taking part in Battle’s Over, an international commemoration marking 100 years since the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War.
At 7pm On Sunday, 11 November the beacon in Salisbury Fields will be lit in a tribute called Beacons of Light, signifying the light of peace that emerged from the darkness of four years of war. All are welcome to attend from 6.45pm when Heart and Soul, the Poundbury Community Choir, will be performing. The Last Post will be sounded at 6.55pm followed by the lighting of the beacon. At 7.05pm Town Crier Alistair Chisholm will deliver the cry, For Peace around the World.
Chris Copson, curator of The Keep Military Museum