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Witnesses in the Landscape

Tim Godden is an artist, illustrator and academic who works out of his studio in North Devon. His work is based on historical research of the World Wars and is inspired by the gentle, human moments contained within those horrific conflicts.

Maple Copse Cemetery.

What’s in a name?

The first observation you can make is the name of the war cemetery. Cemetery names tell something of the history of not just the site, but the landscape within which they sit; they may be points that were notable battlefield sites, or well-known places en route to the frontline.

These are often the last legacy of a geography entirely created by the Tommies who fought there. Just by considering the name, be that Maple Copse or Prowse Point, you are placing yourself into the otherwise lost landscape of the First World War.

Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial.

The wartime landscape retained

The landscape of the First World War was the most important inspiration in the design of the permanent cemetery sites. The Junior Architects, a group of young men who had all served during the war, found many ways to design aspects of the wartime landscape into the cemeteries.

At Tyne Cot, a well-visited example, much attention is given to the Memorial to the Missing, but the most important element is the retention of the wartime landscape in the design of the Junior Architect, John Truelove.

The cemetery space is defined by the original battlefield; by the retained pillboxes and original battlefield burials around the Cross of Sacrifice.

A pillbox in Tyne Cot Cemetery.

The artistic metaphor that Truelove created by placing rows of white headstones between these former pillboxes means that you, as the visitor, stand in both their killing fields and their tragic result. In doing this Truelove ensured that the history of the site and the spaces of the original battlefield shape the experience of visiting the cemetery.

Wherever possible the Junior Architects retained the original battlefield features, and this can also be seen at Bedford House and Railway Dugouts.

Bedford House Cemetery.

Peculiar but intentional

Those sites that have an original battlefield feature are usually fairly obvious. But, there are also more subtle ways in which the architects kept elements of the battlefield landscape. One of the things I always recommend to look out for in a CWGC cemetery is the peculiarities, the nuances I mentioned before. These might be a deviation in a wall, a strange angle where two walls meet, or something else that looks unusual in the layout. Often, these reflect the architect’s deliberate attempt to capture something of the wartime landscape into the permanent architecture.

At Perth Cemetery (China Wall) the perimeter walls of the cemetery follow the lines of a communication trench up to The Wall of China trench (the back wall) and along to Oxford Street. The pocket of land exactly replicates the ‘void’ of land created by the surrounding trenches and buildings and ensures that a shape created by the landscape of war remains in our modern landscape.

Perth Cemetery (China Wall).

An abstracted wartime landscape

Of course, not every site had a piece of the battlefield to be retained, though architecture still frequently makes references to the battlefield landscape. One of the two most remarkable examples, and one of my favourite CWGC cemeteries, can be found at Messines Ridge. The architect, Charles Holden, created a progression from the modern roadside that takes the visitor through an abstracted version of the wartime landscape, via a trench–like sunken pathway, past the Cross of Sacrifice bellowing upwards like the ruptured earth of a mine blast, and up, over the top, into the cemetery enclosure. This captures in perpetuity an element of the experience of the landscape during the war that transports the visitor back to the Western Front, even if only in the slightest possible way. Whenever you find a level change in a CWGC cemetery consider what it might be trying to tell you.

Messines Ridge British Cemetery and New Zealand Memorial to the Missing.

A design to tell a story

The cemetery and the landscape are often thought of as separate, but we should consider them together. At Railway Dugouts is a fine example of one of the methods the architects used to let the cemetery design tell the history of the place. The circular layout of headstones is often considered as purely decorative; in fact it reflects the cause of the inscription ‘buried near this spot’.

The original locations of the graves were lost in shellfire, but the bodies are still within the area. This artistic version of a shell hole remembers both the fallen and the story of the landscape they sit within. Unfortunately, this was not uncommon and this artistic shell hole, and other versions of it, on it can be seen in many CWGC sites along the old Western Front.

Railway Dugouts Burial Ground (Transport Farm).

Look beyond the walls

All of the design features that we have considered so far are there if you know how to look for them. But they all share one thing in common, which is one of the key features of the whole design project: they require that you look at the cemetery as part of the landscape. In many of the cemeteries highlighted you will find features that suggest you look beyond the walls. At Tyne Cot and Hooge Crater Cemetery, there are the obvious inclusions of viewing platforms that enable you to look out across the killing fields beyond. But there are other, less obvious suggestions in architecture, too.

The use of Special Memorials to highlight graves that were known to have existed but were subsequently lost are placed against perimeter walls. The design takes the visitor to the edge of the cemetery, a subtle suggestion that the body lays somewhere beyond. Another important element of the landscape memorial the CWGC cemeteries represent is the Crosses of Sacrifice. Of course, they have a religious function in the cemetery space, but at a practical level, the architects considered them as signposts within the wider landscape. Stand in any one cemetery and scan the horizon and you will often be able to see the next cemetery or cemeteries along.

Hooge Crater Cemetery.

As I am sure is clear from this introduction, there is a lot more to see and discover. It is impossible in such a short piece to highlight all the specifics, even just those of the sites you have available in this series of tours. However, I hope that it will at least encourage you to look for more of the hidden history contained within CWGC cemeteries. To look for the nuances, the little things, that tell you more of the history of the battlefield landscape in and beyond the walls than the headstones on their own can.



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