Families make their mark

There were two contributions that loved ones could make to the headstone of identified casualties: specifying a religion and writing a personal inscription. Both were problematic.

Religious Emblems

Symbols for all the major religions feature on our headstones, the most common being the Christian cross with over one million occurrences across both World Wars.  However, this does not represent the number of confirmed Christian casualties, because where the religion was unknown the cross was used as a default emblem.  Some Christian denominations were also concerned that only one style of cross was used.  

Many headstones have no religious symbol by request.  Whether this was motivated by atheism, non-conformism or another reason was never recorded, and therefore can only be speculated upon.

Commission headstones honouring Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian casualties. © CWGC.

A ‘Final Verification’ form for a Jewish soldier, with the personal inscription “Deeply mourned by sisters, brothers and friends”. The line break in red ink has been added by a Commission employee. © CWGC.

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Personal Inscriptions

Personal inscriptions provide the most intimate insight into those lives lost and those forever changed by the war. Yet they were initially limited to 66 characters, and a fee of 3½ pence per letter was charged for British Army casualties. The intention was that families would appreciate being able to practically contribute to a loved one’s commemoration, but the Commission soon faced accusations of hypocrisy because only the wealthy could afford a substantial inscription. Although we still engraved inscriptions if a payment wasn’t forthcoming, many people were deterred from writing one.

There are over 229,000 personal inscriptions for First World War graves. Ranging from literary and Biblical quotations to hymns, from meditations on abstract virtues to informal addresses to the dead, they offer a tantalising glimpse into the post-war process of grief.

The most commonly used words in the personal inscriptions on the graves of Commonwealth war casualties from the First World War.

Committee minutes detailing rejected and accepted personal inscriptions. © CWGC.

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However, the Commission had the right to veto inflammatory inscriptions. Several Committee minutes include debates over these controversial submissions, such as “A NOBLE SON SACRIFICED FOR CAPITALISM”. Interestingly, several were permitted that suggest the futility of war, indicating the liberal attitude the Commission tried to adopt when dealing with the delicate issue of loved ones’ sole means of expression.

Today the CWGC continues to recover bodies from former battlefields, reburying them with dignity and honour.  When identification is possible, descendants are asked to provide a personal inscription for the headstone that will accompany a formal burial. 

Mel Donnelly, CWGC Commemorations Policy Manager, gives an insight into the process of choosing a personal inscription then and now…