Staying behind

Notes on the Commission’s origins by T. Gordon Bryceson, c.1960's. © CWGC.

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Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not understood as it is today in 1918, a fascinating account of the Commission’s early years by one of its draughtsmen discusses the therapeutic benefit of remaining on the Continent after the war. Noting how many demobbed men “collapsed under the strain of the rush and tear of city life” back in the UK, T. Gordon Bryceson described how Commission work gave them “the opportunity of quietly and gradually adapting…to civilian life again”. Furthermore, the rural location of the French Headquarters at St. Omer “had a soothing effect on war-strained nerves”.

Learn more about the difficult conditions faced by early Commission staff in France and Belgium...

There are numerous tales of gardeners who were eager to stay behind to tend the graves of fallen comrades. One such was Jack Kingston, whose best friend Ernest Goodall was killed next to him during the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ that would lead to the end of the war. Jack worked at several cemeteries after the fighting ended.

Two pages with photograph of man with moustache wearing bowtie, text in French

Identity card belonging to Jack Kingston, © CWGC.

In 1923 he made his way to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery to visit Ernie’s grave – Plot XXV, Row C, Grave 26A. Jack would eventually return to Surrey and start a family. Throughout his life he remained, according to his granddaughter, “deeply anxious that the 1914-18 war and the men who fought in it would be forgotten”.

In 1935 the Head Gardener of Etaples Military Cemetery delivered a moving account of his sense of duty in a radio address to mark the Armistice anniversary. A gunner who fought on the Somme, Mr. Brook stated that “The consolation it has brought to hundreds of thousands of relatives and the grateful thanks we receive make us feel our work is for a sacred and noble purpose.”

Postcard sent by Jack Kingston to his family back in England

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Man standing amongst rows of headstones, small leafless tree in the left foreground, black and white photograph

Photo of Jack Kingston visiting the grave of his friend Ernest Goodall in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

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Mr Brook – Standing fourth from left

Both Jack Kingston and Mr. Brook demonstrate the sense of loving guardianship over the dead that Rudyard Kipling pays tribute to in his short story ‘The Gardener’ (1926), where the humble Commission employee is elevated to a Christ-like status in understanding the secrets of the dead and those who come to mourn.

Read The Gardener by Rudyard Kipling…


Being immersed in our tranquil sites provided healing comfort for many individuals. Yet there was also productive energy to be harnessed by Commission staff working and living together: lively social committees were eventually formed, and even marriages and baptisms were not uncommon. With these new sources of enjoyment and hope, it became apparent that the emerging cemeteries and memorials were just as much creations of the living as the dead. Our final section explores how increasing numbers of visitors demonstrated how these sites could become sources of reflection and redemption for successive generations.