Gravestone Epitaphs of WWI: From Victoria Crosses to “Shot at Dawn”

Posted on March 25th, 2015

When the Imperial War Graves Commission began the work of creating the huge number of cemeteries in which to bury Britain’s war dead, one of its earliest decisions was to ensure that each headstone would be inscribed with the same detail: name, rank, number and regiment, date of death and (where known) age.

Given that the government was not prepared to pay for mass repatriation of the dead – yet feared the social consequences if only those who could afford it privately were able to reclaim their dead – it was felt that, in death, all soldiers whatever their rank, should be buried together; in the same atmosphere of ‘fellowship’ in which they had died.
chavasse-grave-double-victoria-cross

Victoria Cross

Of all the medals that a soldier could be awarded, only the Victoria Cross would be etched into the Portland Stone, from which each gravestone was hewn. So it is that (as you can see from the photograph) with which two Victoria Crosses can be seen on the headstone over Capt. Noel Chevasse RAMC VC’s grave.

 

Engravings

The only other acceptable engraving, at the cost to families of 3½d per character (three and a half pennies in UK whilst the Australian government charged sixpence, 6d), would be an epitaph of their choice. Indeed, as opposed to those haunting nameless headstones which announce simply “Known unto God”, there is barely any space left on Noel’s headstone after his family chose to add, “Greater Love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends”.

 

pte-herbert-morris

“Shot at Dawn”

I was so busy concentrating upon taking a good series of photographs during my latest visit that I quite forgot to look at the next headstone in the row. Because there is every chance that the soldier buried next to him could have been ‘Shot at Dawn’, i.e. executed for desertion or cowardice.

For, despite having received the Army’s harshest and most final punishment, it was also decided that these men – and 346 soldiers were executed during the war – should be buried beside the men with whom they had served, without any outward sign of the different circumstances of their deaths being made.

Accordingly, as you will see from the next photograph, Pte Herbert Morris of the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment now lies buried in the Poperinghe New Military Cemetery on the outskirts of that Belgian town, at the end of a very full row and only a stones’ throw away from the Stone of Sacrifice.

To this day, although the headstone is beginning to show the damage wrought by almost a hundred years of exposure in all weathers, only the most ardent of cemetery visitors would have any idea that Herbert had been executed on 20th September 1917. He had gone absent from his unit without leave on two separate occasions, being apprehended the second time in Boulogne, undoubtedly trying to seek passage back to England.

 

Pte Albert Ingham

Although clearly the space for an epitaph on each gravestone was limited – and, of course, cost per character acted as a break on the most florid expressions of grief – there were no guides lines offered as to what would be acceptable. Which undoubtedly explains why Pte Albert Ingham’s father, on learning that his son had been executed on 1st December 1916, used the epitaph to express his outrage.

Having enlisted on 5th September 1914, with his friend Alfred Longshaw, the boys found themselves in one of Kitchener’s ‘Pal’s’ Battalions – 18th Battalion, Manchester Regiment (3rd Manchester City Battalion). As with so many ‘Pals’ Battalions, they fought throughout the Battle of the Somme, during which they had seen most of their friends killed.

Still wishing to carry out their patriotic duty, they decided that they would prefer to serve in the Navy, with whom Longshaw’s brother was serving. Not having had leave for many months and admitting to feeling unnerved by their battle experiences, the two were apprehended in civilian clothes on their way to Dieppe.

ingham-and-longshaw-graves

Buried together in Bailleulmont Communal Cemetery on the Somme, Albert’s grave now announces to the world that he was, “SHOT AT DAWN ONE OF THE FIRST TO ENLIST A WORTHY SON OF HIS FATHER”. His is the only one of the Commonwealth War Grave’s Commissions headstones to give any indication that a solider had been executed. And, for good measure, as you will see from the photographs, the military graves in this cemetery are further distinguished by being the only ones marked by stones made from Locharbriggs sandstone, rather than the ubiquitous Portland stone.

 

 

Debbie Coupland

About the Author

Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.