This November marks one hundred years since the end of the First World War. It was one of the costliest events of the Twentieth Century, defining what would happen throughout the world for the next one hundred years.
Today, it still looms large in the collective memory of the countries involved, as many people can trace a family member who fought, was wounded or even lost their lives over the course of the conflict. In the United Kingdom, the symbols of remembrance can be found in every city, town or village that sent soldiers to fight.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was responsible for recording and caring for the graves of soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War and subsequent conflicts.
Today, the global commitment of the CWGC amounts to over 23,000 memorial locations across 153 countries and this ranges from the largest cemetery—the resting place of more than 11,900 servicemen, to the smallest plot with just four graves. The CWGC is one of the largest horticultural employers in the world, who manage and maintain grounds that are equivalent in size to 994 football pitches.
The CWGC can trace its heritage back to the First World War, when in 1917, a British Red Cross officer called Sir Fabian Ware, was overcome by the extent of the loss and sought to record the final resting places of those who had been killed and buried on the many battlefields scattered throughout Belgium and France.
Ever since then, the CWGC have built the many war cemeteries that exist throughout the world, with the most recent from the First World War being built in 2010, after the discovery of 250 British and Australian war dead in Fromelles Wood, France.
I recently met with the Director of Horticulture of the CWGC—David Richardson, to discuss the phenomenal work he does. We met at the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, where I was astonished at sheer size of the site.
The beautiful landscaping that accompanied the graves and memorials also caught my eye during the visit. Brookwood is the largest CWGC Cemetery in the UK and contains the graves of more than 1,600 Commonwealth and American servicemen from the First World War and 3,470 from the Second World War.
Walking between the rows of gravestones, I asked David Richardson what role horticulture had to play in the design of the cemetery and the many other cemeteries across the globe.
“The layout of the cemeteries is very much in a garden style. You have the identifiable headstones, but also the beautiful plants and kept lawns that surround them.”
As we walked I noticed we were amongst some Canadian headstones, where servicemen from Canada had been buried.
All around us were beautiful maples and acers, bursting with rich autumn colour and this was no coincidence—The CWGC tries, wherever possible, to use plants that reflect the nationality of the fallen.
David went on to tell me “Every stone has got something planted in front of it and these flowers serve two purposes. Firstly, they are beautiful and picturesque and secondly the flowers planted at the base of the stone stops the splash when it rains, so the inscriptions, many of which are chosen by the families of the fallen, don’t become obscured.”
I wondered how other visitors to these cemeteries react when walking through them.
“I think initially people look at the garden and think it’s a beautiful landscape, it’s really special, it’s tranquil and is beautifully well maintained.
Then they walk around and start to look at the head stones and read inscriptions and I think, then, the meaning of this garden and the fact that these headstones represent, mostly young men who died during the war, hits home.” And it really does hit home.
The gravestones are each made from Portland Stone, and are arranged in rows in an almost military fashion. The CWGC employs over 160 craftsmen to engrave any damaged or new stones that come in and employ 850 gardeners to maintain the vegetation around them.
David told me about one gardener working at a cemetery in Italy, who had tended the grave of a young British soldier for 40 years.
They managed to track down a photograph of the young man and gave it to the gardener, who burst into tears.
I think this shows that even today we still have a strong connection to the fallen and even as time marches on, the names engraved on the headstones will never be forgotten.
In the background, as we walked, we could hear the rattle of gunfire that drifted over from the nearby army barracks and that brought home the fact that there were still soldiers fighting in conflicts today.
It is the role that horticulture has to play in the helping these men and women, returning from fighting around the globe, that I will be exploring in my later blog.