By Judith Phillips
I was recently sent a link to a BBC News webpage. The news piece was about a project to identify First World War battlefield crosses.
Graves dug near battlefields were usually marked with a wooden cross giving brief details of the dead soldier. But the flow of military offensives and retreats, particularly on the Western Front, meant that in many cases graves were destroyed by new action or had to re-dug in safer areas. The wooden battlefield crosses were eventually replaced by the stone headstones we are all familiar with in the large-scale cemeteries and memorials we associate with the aftermath of fighting on the Western Front. In many cases the battlefield cross was returned to the soldier’s family but, of course, over the years many have perished or been forgotten.
In conjunction with the University of Kent, volunteer researchers are investigating and recording the survival of battlefield crosses. The BBC News piece gives many examples and illustrations of the work, and you can find out more on the project website www.thereturned.co.uk.
If you came to Andrew Marriott’s fascinating talk on trench art last year, you will remember his mentioning the three crosses set up on the Butte of Warlencourt to commemorate soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry who were killed in action there. The crosses are now housed in Durham Cathedral, St Andrew’s Bishop Auckland and St Cuthbert’s Chester-le-Street.
The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was (and still is) responsible for maintaining war graves and their website has been a very great help in the research for our WWI project. The story of the commission’s creation is fascinatingly told in ‘Empires of the Dead: how one man’s vision led to the creation of WWI’s war graves’ by David Crane.