Huw Edwards: why were Britain's fallen soldiers never repatriated after the First World War?
Many bereaved families wanted their loved ones brought home to be buried, says the BBC broadcaster
The story of the First World War is still not complete. So much has been studied, analysed and written. And yet the process of investigation continues to bring surprising results.
My journey from Wales to England to Belgium this summer allowed me to piece together the story of how the losses of the Great War shaped our rituals of Remembrance.
I visited the village of Sennybridge in the Brecon Beacons where I discovered one of the most intriguing places of worship anywhere in the United Kingdom. Rhyd-y-briw – a small Victorian church located in the heart of an Army camp – contains a memorial stone to William Parry, a local man killed at the age of 25 in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
It was there that I met William’s great-niece, Gwyneth Evans, who each July continues the family tradition of placing flowers on the memorial to mark the anniversary of his death. She later accompanied me to the New Irish Farm Cemetery, near the Belgian town of Ypres, to place flowers on William’s grave. And in an intensely moving expression of respect and affection, she and husband Ieuan sang a Welsh hymn at the graveside.
Their sense of duty – the duty to remember – is shared by so many other families.
The fact remains, however, that the pilgrimage made by Gwyneth and Ieuan in 2018 was simply not possible in 1918 for the majority of families and friends of the 750,000 British and Empire servicemen lost in the Great War. The journey would have been far too costly. Which prompts a fundamental question: why were these men laid to rest in a foreign land and not brought home to be buried?
At the heart of the Christian tradition is a range of rituals around death – the most important of which is the funeral service – giving the opportunity to part with the deceased. But it had become British policy, mainly on grounds of cost and logistics, not to allow the repatriation of any bodies.
To begin with, there had been a few. Perhaps unsurprisingly the families concerned were people of money and influence. The last recorded repatriation was that of Will Gladstone, grandson of the former prime minister. Huge crowds turned up for the funeral on the family estate in Hawarden in Flintshire, and it was filmed by Pathé News. But so concerned was the government about public resentment and retaliation that it forbade any more.
Still the protests continued. Groups of women banded together to campaign against the male-dominated military and government hierarchy in demanding the return of the bodies of husbands, sons and brothers. Their leader was Sarah Smith, a bereaved mother from Leeds. I was shown some of the letters, documents and petitions produced in the national campaign. One was from Ruth Jervis, a mother, who in 1918 wrote: “Perhaps it is not everyone’s wish to have them brought home, but I want mine brought home. The country took him and the country should bring him back.”
The women were inspired by the decision of other countries – after the Armistice – to allow families to bring home their loved one for burial. The US authorities paid for the repatriation of thousands of bodies. The French and Belgian governments followed the example. This explains why cemeteries such as Poperinge in Western Flanders have expanses of grass where rows of stones were removed.
But the British authorities held firm. The men would be buried in suitably dignified cemeteries – to be cared for “in perpetuity” – near the “foreign field” where they made the supreme sacrifice for king and country.
The women’s campaign for repatriation gave way to a scheme to organise pilgrimages to the Menin Gate, the great memorial in Ypres, and to the battlefield cemeteries so that mothers, wives and sisters could at least feel close to their loved ones. Bereaved families were also prominent in the movement to create local war memorials in village, town and city squares, as well as in chapels, churches, schools and workplaces. With them came the Remembrance rituals – including the two-minute silence – that we still observe today.
My journey ended at Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world. And here’s the lasting impression: what started a century ago as remembrance on an imperial scale has now given way to something far more intimate, a focus on the individual, and on the crushing losses sustained by families and friends.
The rituals of Remembrance are as necessary today as they have ever been, based on the one fundamental that never changes – the eternal duty to remember.
Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance airs 8.30pm on BBC1 on Saturday 10th November