"What humanity can endure and suffer is beyond belief"

The Glorious Dead: review of “Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens”, author Jeroen Geurst.

Another Remembrance Sunday, another poignant ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. New memorials to the fallen, both military and civilian, are springing up everywhere, particularly in London. A huge new National Memorial Arboretum exists in Staffordshire. Few of the new structures, however, come close to the sublimity achieved by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect who designed the masterly Cenotaph (a new concept at the time as a focus of concentrated memory) and, as this book describes, an astonishing number of battlefield cemeteries across Flanders and Northern France.

The downbeat title belies what is a fascinating book on architecture and society. At the height of the carnage of the Great War, a few individuals were determined that those who were dying in such numbers should be buried and commemorated with dignity. It was a huge, grim, task: 562,000 British (including Irish) and Empire troops died on the Western Front in the Great War, 60,000 of them on the first day of the Somme alone. Most of them were buried in makeshift graves which were often in turn destroyed by shellfire. Enormous numbers of the missing could never be found, let alone identified; others are frequently discovered and reburied, today. Jeroen Geurst, the Dutch author of this book, recounts how, until this terrible war, the usual military response was to bury the ranks in anonymous mass graves, commemorating only the officers. Given the slaughter going on, you might imagine that this practice would continue. But as Geurst relates, five men who left England for the Western Front on 9 July 1917 changed all that.

They were Lutyens, his architect friend and rival Herbert Baker (the two were collaborating on, and falling out over, the design of New Delhi), Charles Aitken, director of the National Gallery, and Arthur Hill, assistant director of Kew Gardens. With them was J.M. Barrie, the playwright and good friend of Lutyens whose adopted son George – one of the ‘Lost Boys’ who had earlier inspired Peter Pan – had died on the front in 1915.

They had been summoned by the one man whose belief and persistence made these evocative cemeteries possible, Fabian Ware. Too old to fight, this former teacher and newspaper editor had enlisted in the Red Cross at the outbreak of war. He began to record the locations of the haphazard burial sites – often just shell craters – with their crude wooden crosses and pencil-scrawled inscriptions. Ware persuaded the authorities not only that the dead deserved better, but that this was good for army morale. By the time he summoned the experts to design the cemeteries, Ware was about to become the founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Eventually Lutyens and a few assistants designed 140 of them.

Writing to his wife from the Front on that first visit, Lutyens said: “The cemeteries, the dotted graves, are the most pathetic things…what humanity can endure and suffer is beyond belief. A ribbon of isolated graves like a milky way across miles of country where men were tucked in where they fell.”

As usual, he and Baker disagreed (and finally refused to work with each other). Baker, backed by the Church of England, wanted overt Christian symbolism, Lutyens – though himself a believer – favoured a more abstract response. In the end, a compromise was reached. All the larger cemeteries have both a plain, altar-like subtly geometric “war stone” by Lutyens, and a tall stone cross, almost Celtic in proportion, by a third architect, Reginald Blomfield, whom Lutyens respected. These fixed elements, plus smaller shelters, gateways, terraces, walls and the carefully-placed trees and planting, all served to set off those mesmerizing rows of plain tombstones where – as Lutyens and Ware both insisted – all ranks, faiths and nationalities are equal. Other architects signed up all had to do likewise.

You might think that these rules would make all the cemeteries the same. But this would reckon without the genius of Lutyens. Geurst’s amazingly detailed book examines, in photographs and drawings, all of his cemeteries, showing how the master architect juggled these elements against the landscape to provide an incredible level of variety and invention. Lutyens worked with his long-term collaborator “Bumps”, better known as the landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll. He saw them as churches or cathedrals in which the roof was the sky, the columns trees, and the congregation both the living and the dead. They are a perfect fusion of architecture and landscape, in which the two disciplines interpenetrate in a way impossible in any normal building. They represent some of the best and most overlooked architecture of their generation.

The instigator of all this, Sir Fabian Ware, outlived Lutyens and died at 80 after another world war. This fine book does not mention it, but his tomb in a Gloucestershire country churchyard is marked by a standard plain War Graves Commission headstone, the same as for the soldiers whose memory he championed.

“Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens”, author Jeroen Geurst, 010 Publishers http://www.010.nl/index_ie.htm, hb, colour, 470pp, £41.00

Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, November 14, 2010, as “In Foreign Fields”

Bookmark and Share