“I wouldn’t mind,” I heard a woman’s voice sobbing at my elbow. “I wouldn’t mind if my son had been killed. I wouldn’t mind—if he could be here.” Tears streamed down her kindly face. She clutched my elbow. “I wouldn’t mind.” There was a scent of roses and mown grass, the reflection of sunlight from white Portland stone, a cool and gentle Mediterranean breeze, the promise of heat to come. “I wouldn’t mind.”
Oh dear, I thought. Oh dear. If only you knew. We were two English people in a primal English setting: greensward, shrubs, flowering perennials, paved walks on which saxifrage rooted between the cracks, low walls, statuary and monolithic masonry—an English enclosure far from England. Mature trees shut out the vista to the landward side, but to the seaward there was a gap in the planting to show blue water lapping the foot of limestone crags. Thyme and laurel and olive ascended the hillsides, silver and gray and black to counterpoint the garden’s lighter and darker greens. “Remember, green is a color,” Gertrude Jekyll, the inventor of the modern English garden, advised her pupils; and here, below the hillsides, arid after summer drought, green was a brilliant, almost overpowering color. The grass beneath our feet was spongy with the morning’s watering, and yesterday’s and the days’ before.
The landscape beyond the garden was ageless, with that Mediterranean agelessness which has captivated English travelers since they first began their journeys to rediscover, three hundred years ago, the classical world their ancestors had done so much to overthrow; but the garden was timeless, belonging neither to the present nor to the past but to an arrested moment that exists only in the English imagination. It is a moment suffused by classicism, inspired by the temperate wilderness, but transcending both, a moment when the work of man comes into equilibrium with the beauty of nature and an ideal landscape is brought to perfection.
Where are these landscapes? They surround the English. Some are accidental, tracts of the English countryside, a highly artificial creation four thousand years old in parts, where contour and woodland—woodland surviving from the primeval or planted in living memory—combine with plough and pasture, hedge and wall, to form a vision the English call England. The English vision is particularly present in the Cotswolds west of Oxford, in the South Hams of Devonshire, in Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, along the Welsh marches of Herefordshire or Shropshire, in Beatrix Potter country above the Cumbrian lakes, in the Kipling territory of remoter Kent and Sussex. Yet that vision is also present wherever population is sparse, rainfall heavy, and agriculture intense but with tracts of ancient forest land making a patchwork of settlement and emptiness, the familiar and the mysterious.
Many are not accidental at all, but the handiwork of great landlords and the artists they employed to beautify what was already beautiful in a manner quite alien to the environment that soil and climate offered them. England is natural broadleaf forest land, with deep topsoil in which stone is hard to come by and the indigenous flowering plants are retiring and modest on color. Without relentless human effort, cleared land goes back to scrub in a few seasons and to forest in a century. Despite the power of these natural forces, English landowners decided in the seventeenth century to create private landscapes for themselves that defy north European ecology and to impose on their immediate surroundings those elements of classicism which they knew their Italian and many of their French equivalents enjoyed by inheritance. They began to build stone palaces in classical style, to lay out severely formal gardens on their doorsteps, and to reorder the more distant landscape versions into those idealized Italian landscapes painted by Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin with which they filled their picture galleries. There is, within a mile of my house in Wiltshire, one of the greatest of English ideal landscapes, the artificial lakeland garden of Stourhead. I often wonder whether the Hoare family, which created it, was not inspired to do so by the southerly vista into Dorset, which typifies that vision of an accidentally perfect England to which I have referred already. There are other such artificial and ideal landscapes at Blenheim and Ditchley north of Oxford, at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, and at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, to name only some of the most famous. Every English county offers to visitors dozens of smaller, less spectacular versions of these models, and the English visit them in their millions, at the tourist season but also throughout the year, to commune with a central belief of their Englishness—that England is a garden, and that to be English is to be a gardener; that in life they are best at home in a garden; and that, in death, a garden is where they belong.
Few English people, of course, can hope to live at Stourhead or Stowe; and, perhaps, they really don’t wish to inhabit such idealizations of nature. The English are homebodies, happy if in a fraction of an acre they can recreate some of the elements of that high style. They are greatly helped to do so by one of the longest running national radio programs, Gardener’s Question Time, whose peripatetic panel of experts weekly instructs millions of listeners in the secrets of gardening practice by answering queries put by members of a local horticultural society that has succeeded in the competition to welcome the broadcast to their town or village. I often think that the enormous popularity of Gardener’s Question Time, which has been on the air now for nearly forty years, is a touchstone of the difference between English and American culture. The extremes of climate in the United States, and its highs and lows of fertility and aridity, rule out the viability of a program based on the presumption of uniform temperature and cultivability. More than that, however, Gardener’s Question Time presumes also that its listeners will have a lifetime to tend the same garden. It is a program for a people who do not move, or move at most a few miles down the road, and it would therefore be untransplantable into the restless mobility of the United States, whose people not only change states but coasts with a frequency that seems reckless, positively unnatural, to the BBC’s cozy stay-at-homes.
I have been talking of the English worship of great gardens, the cathedral of their horticultural world. There is, quite as important, an alternative English gardening tradition, that of the cottage plot, the parish church of plantsmen and plantswomen. The great garden is formal and contrived, however artfully integrated into its normal surroundings, and its color tones are modulated and subdued. The cottage garden, by contrast, is spontaneous and informal, full of color and of plants allowed to have their head. The center point of the great garden is the paved or graveled walk running between trimmed topiary. That of the cottage garden is the herbaceous border and rambling rose. Both are equally English, though they have different origins. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new generation of English garden designers succeeded in combining these traditions into what is now accepted to be the classic English garden. Its layout draws on the seventeenth-century fashion for formality, on the eighteenth-century idealization of nature and classical civilization, and on a more recent enthusiasm for the vernacular. Some great gardens were adapted to accommodate the herbaceousness previously excluded as vulgar and unaristocratic, as at Arley Hall in Cheshire, where the beds date to 1846. Many more, the work of the newly rich, were radical reorganizations at old houses that had either fallen into decay or were designed in the new fashion from the start. Such houses were not necessarily large, but were built to the highest standards and given spaciousness by a deliberate policy of extending the architecture of the house out into the surrounding walls, terraces, summerhouses, and topiary hedges. The most sought after designer of these new houses was the young architect Edwin Lutyens, and the most inventive designer of the gardens associated with them, the self-taught horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll. They were often to cooperate. Lutyens helped Jekyll with what remains one of the most influential of all English gardening books, Gardens for Small Country Houses, and the results of their collaboration can be seen at such places as Orchards, Surrey; Marsh Court, Hampshire; Amport House in the same county; and Folly Farm, Berkshire.
Lutyens particularly favored low stone walls, paved walks, pergolas, and pavilions in stripped-down classical style. Jekyll encouraged the planting of dwarf roses, creeping ground cover, gray and silver border plants, azaleas, and climbers such as hydrangea and wisteria. Their joint purpose was to soften masonry with vegetation that liked support, to sharpen natural forms with architectural straight lines, and to relieve the grays and browns of stone and brick with blues, yellows, and purples.
It was in exactly such surroundings that the tear-stained woman and I found each other, when she clutched my arm and burst into her outpourings about not minding if her son were killed. I was not the least surprised by her reaction. I had heard it, in different versions, many times before in many parts of the world. We were, as it happened, on Crete, in the Suda Bay British War Cemetery, where 1,571 servicemen are buried, mainly British but including large numbers of New Zealanders and Australians. Most were killed resisting the German airborne invasions of May 20, 1941, a disaster for the German parachutists involved, of whom 2,000 died on the first day, but a strategic victory for Hitler, who secured the island despite those catastrophic losses.
We might, however, have been in any one of the larger Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s cemeteries anywhere in the world. The dead of the British Empire and Commonwealth of the two world wars are buried in 134 countries, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, including the former Soviet Union. In the list are the two tiny states of San Marino and Monaco, each containing two graves. The smallest cemetery is on Ocracoke Island, off North Carolina, with four graves; the largest is the Thiepval cemetery in the department of the Somme, France, where the bodies of 70,000 soldiers are buried, and the names of those missing in the great Somme battle of the First World War are commemorated. These are cemeteries proper, of which the Commission maintains about 2,000 throughout the word. Besides these are 23,000 individual graves or plots in nonmilitary cemeteries, for which the Commission also cares. One such grave is in Kilmington churchyard, under my bedroom window, and I see it every morning when I draw the curtains. It is that of Private S. Prince, Somerset Light Infantry, who died at age twenty-two on May 5, 1916—home, I presume, on leave from France just before the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Every two years an official of the Commission comes to scrub the headstone—one of over a million identical headstones in the world-and to cut the grass, tidy the surroundings, and ensure that Private Prince continues to repose in dignity.
There are, of course, many more dead than headstones. In every French cathedral a plaque, inscribed in French and English, displays the text To the Glory of God and in Memory of One Million Men of the British Empire Who Died in the Great War and of Whom the Greater Number Rest in France. Of those killed in France, the bodies of nearly half could not be found or were unidentifiable, while most of the naval dead were lost at sea. There is a similar proportion of missing among the dead of the Second World War. In some way the Commission commemorates the names of all of them. The numbers are staggering. Nearly 1.7 million names are commemorated, of which 900,000 are those of identified servicemen and women lying in marked graves. There are over 700,000 monumental inscriptions to the missing, but 200,000 of those are on graves reading Known Unto God, because the remains recovered by the Commission were unrecognizable. There are other variations. Some headstones record a casualty “known to be buried near this spot”; others, two or more names of bodies too intermingled to be buried separately.
An attempt was made in the immediate aftermath of the First World War to represent in visual terms what the Empire’s loss meant (Courage Remembered by Edwin Gibson and G. Kingsley Ward, 1989):
Imagine [the dead] moving in one continuous column, four abreast. As the head of that column reaches the Cenotaph in London, the last four men would be in Durham [240 miles away, in the north of England]. In Canada that column would stretch across the land from Quebec to Ottawa; in Australia, from Melbourne to Canberra; in South Africa, from Bloemfontein to Pretoria; in New Zealand, from Christchurch to Wellington; in Newfoundland, from coast to coast; and in India, from Lahore to Delhi. [I might interpolate for an American audience: in the United States, from Boston to Philadelphia.] It would take those million men eighty-four hours, or three-and-a-half days, to march past the Cenotaph in London.
These distances may be nearly doubled since the Second World War, in which another 700,000—as opposed to 400,000 United States-servicemen died.
How was this vast army of the dead to be decently interred? That was the question that confronted the British government very soon after the first mass casualty lists began to be published in the national newspapers in 1915. The dead of Britain’s earlier wars, frequent though those had been, were comparatively few in number. They had been buried near where they fell, commemorated by stones raised by their friends or their regiments, if commemorated at all. It was a disposal accepted by the poor from which the bulk of the army’s soldiers came. In civil life the parents of many of them would have gone to an unmarked pauper’s grave in town or city. In the countryside a wooden cross, soon to decay, would have indicated their plot in the churchyard. In my village, a resident has calculated, 25,000 bodies have been buried in the churchyard since the Norman Conquest, yet it contains only a few dozen stones, those of the better-off and none older than the eighteenth century.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the British were as a people better off. The funeral had become a major working-class ritual, perhaps the only public event in an individual’s passage through life, and a marked headstone had become a symbol of respectability, that respectability which Victorian Britain had made its chief outward value. For that reason, though for many others, it was unthinkable that the dead of a national army, dying in their tens of thousands for King, Country, and Empire, should be left in hurried, unmarked graves, marked if at all by some makeshift cross nailed together by the deceased’s comrades. In practice, things were worse than that. Bodies were being thrown together into abandoned trenches, sometimes in dozens; individual burials might be marked by a stake, dozens of which were kept ready by a graves registration officer, on which was affixed a metal plate stamped from a “penny in the slot” machine of a type common in railway stations. At best, given time and a spell out of the trenches, the soldiers might dig graves in French or Belgian churchyards; those began rapidly to fill up. Moreover, the better-off among the bereaved were erecting private memorials of a type the majority could not afford, and some were repatriating the bodies. Both practices struck the wrong note in what the government represented, and the population endorsed, as a national war.
Very early on, therefore, Britain established what, in retrospect, may be seen as several remarkable and nationally distinctive principles for the burial and commemoration of its war dead. One was that there should be no private memorials, “on account of the difficulties of treating impartially the claims advanced by persons of different social standing.” Another was that there should be no repatriation of bodies, because of the commonly held feeling that, as one officer put it, “in spite of all differences of rank, we were comrades, brothers dwelling together in unity.” A third was that officers and soldiers should be buried identically and together because, as Fabian Ware, the first War Graves Commission director, wrote, “In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred [officers] will tell you that if they are killed [they] would wish to be among their men.” A fourth, the most important, was that each fallen soldier should be honored individually, so that, even in a war of mass slaughter, each should be represented as a hero in an epic of collective heroism.
These principles were to be greatly elaborated and their implementation standardized in the years to come. That was the achievement of Fabian Ware himself, a modest man who nevertheless deserves to be recognized as a major semilogist of British culture in the twentieth century. Semiology was not, of course, his purpose; semiologist was not a rifle he would have welcomed or even understood. That, nevertheless, is his title to fame, and it is richly deserved. Through him a peculiarly English—I say English in preference to British—language of symbols, some from nature, some from the mind or hand of man, has come to stand as a representation of how the nation wished to be seen by itself and by other nations at the end of its passage through an ordeal that tested the roots of its culture and identity to destruction. Some representation of this language of symbols can, as I have said, be found at sites in almost every country in the world, and I can testify to its continuing power to move the emotions of those who come upon them from personal experience. Wherever they are found—and I have found them in places as far apart as Alabama, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa—the British are moved with pride and to tears, tears shed also by people who are not British at all. Fabian Ware, by instinct rather than artifice, succeeded in creating a great cultural artifact at which, I do not think I exaggerate in claiming, generations to come will wonder—as we do at the relics of the Roman legions—long after Britain’s worldwide power is only a memory for historians.
Ware had much help. In 1915, soon after he was appointed, the French government wrote a law deeding land for the cemeteries of foreign soldiers as a sépulture perpétuelle. It passed, but not without opposition, for it was against the local traditions both of storing the bones of the dead in ossuaries, a cheap and compact way of burying remains en masse, and of reusing burial plots. As a result, however, British war graves were to be the resting places of individuals in legal perpetuity. He also had assistance from several foremost British architects, including Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, who with Lutyens was a designer of the Empire’s great public buildings. Rudyard Kipling’s role in the design of the Imperial War Graves was a poignant one. His only son, John, was too myopic to meet the army’s medical standards, and he used his influence to secure John a commission in the Irish Guards. John was among the regiment’s missing after the Second Battle of Loos in 1915. For several years Rudyard and his American wife, Carrie, toured the military hospitals in France seeking news of their lost one, without avail. At a moment of alleviation in his grief, he wrote a short poem always quoted among his selected works:
My son was killed while laughing at some jest, I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.
The truth, never communicated to the parents but discovered by a regimental comrade from survivors of John’s company, was that he was last seen crying with pain from a wound in the mouth. His body, lost for decades, has only recently been identified by officials of the Commission, and his headstone is appropriately re-engraved.
It is acutely ironic, therefore, that Kipling was responsible for conceiving the inscriptions carved on the headstones and monumental sculpture of the Commission’s cemeteries. These monuments take three forms. One is a high columnar cross, bearing a bronze sword, known as the Cross of Sacrifice. The second is a monolith, the Stone of Remembrance, on which are carved words from Ecclesiasticus, adapted by Kipling: Their Name Liveth For Evermore. The adaptation was made to avoid giving offense to Hindus, so many of whom died in the service of India’s King-Emperor. The third is the universal and standard headstone, two feet eight inches high, one foot three inches broad. It is cut from white Portland stone, engraved with the deceased’s regimental badge—Private Prince’s, below my bedroom window, shows the mural crown, slung bugle, and battle honor “Jelalabad” of the Somerset Light Infantry—and also with an appropriate religious symbol. Today, 1.5 million bear the Christian cross; 65,000, the Muslim crescent; 100,000, the appropriate Sikh or Hindu symbol; 10,000, the Star of David; and 10,000, Buddhist or Confucian symbols. The stone is also inscribed with the dead serviceman or servicewoman’s number, name, decorations, regimental rifle, age, and date and place of death; or as many details as could be ascertained when a body was disinterred for reburial—for example, A Captain/Canadian Infantry. At the bottom of the stone, relatives may place a personal inscription of up to sixty characters. These inscriptions are the exception rather than the rule, itself an indication of how heartfelt is popular acceptance of the guiding principle of uniformity of remembrance. They are often quite conventional—Peace Perfect Peace, for example, or He Died That Others Might Live. Eccentric or distasteful inscriptions are not allowed. Occasionally, however, an extra tug to the heartstrings is given by a particularly apt line of poetry or some quite artless phrase of lament, the labor of a young widow or of a family struggling together to express their love for a son and brother who will not return.
Kipling also struggled to find a form of words that would dignify without mawkishness the grave of a body that could not be identified. Eventually he hit upon the brief phrase A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God. Unidentified burials of the Second World War are inscribed A Soldier [or A Sailor or An Airman] of the 1939-45 War Known Unto God. Altogether 204,145 graves in the Commission’s care are now inscribed in one of these ways. The only other variations to the headstones are the use of the words Served As when a man enlisted under an alias, and the phrases Buried In This Cemetery, Buried Near This Spot, Buried Elsewhere In This Cemetery, and Known To Be Buried In This Cemetery when records allow such certainties but remains were not found. Believed To Be Buried In This Cemetery is sometimes seen, and, for wartime graves lost and defying rediscovery, Kipling chose the words Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out, also from Ecclesiasticus. The rarest of all variations is the substitution for the religious symbol of a facsimile of the Victoria Cross or the George Cross, Britain’s highest awards for bravery.
None of this symbolism could be imposed until the lost bodies of the dead were found and the makeshift cemeteries of the war reordered. Work began while the Great War was still in progress, but even at its end the condition of many burial places was deeply distressing to relatives who began to make their way to France and Belgium to find where lost ones lay. Too often the sites they discovered were patches of mud or torn earth, bereft of vegetation or covered by weed and rank grass. A scheme of order had to be devised. The task was given to Sir Frederic Kenyon, the director of the British Museum. Within the guiding principles of uniformity of commemoration and an individual grave for all recovered remains, he proposed that each cemetery should either “have the appearance of a small park or garden in no way recognizable as a cemetery,” or that it “be marked by rows of headstones of a uniform height and width, the graves themselves being leveled to a flat surface and planted with turf and flowers.” The rows of headstones would “carry on the military idea, giving the appearance as of a battalion on parade.”
The second alternative was adopted; but, by some creative inspiration of those who undertook the work, the first alternative was integrated with it. The Commission cemeteries are unmistakably that; but they are also unmistakably parks or gardens in the classic English style. How did that come about? We can only guess that it was because the Commission, when it began to recruit maintenance staff, decided for administrative reasons not to enlist locals but to commission British firms that would send their own staff abroad. The practical work was therefore begun not by French or Belgian laborers but by British gardeners, already experienced as horticulturists or later trained at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. The style they brought with them was that which Lutyens and Jekyll—she actually drew up plans for several cemeteries—taught through their seminal gardening book. By March 1921, there were 1,362 gardeners employed; many were to settle in France or Belgium, marry local women, found little English communities, and put their sons into the Commission’s employment. These communities still exist and now have equivalents in Africa, Southeast Asia, India, and Pakistan, all trained in and so carrying on the tradition of classic English country-house gardening in the desert and the tropics as well as in temperate northern Europe.
Other, deeper, literary influences were at work. The Great War provoked in Britain, uniquely among combatant nations, a poetic response. A very great deal of it was arcadian and pastoral. That, again, should not be surprising. As Paul Fussell has noted in his famous book, The Great War and Modern Memory, “Half the poems in The Oxford Book of English Verse are about flowers and a third seem to be about roses.” He does not do a similar count for First World War poetry, but the result might be the same. Certainly some of the most famous are suffused with gardening themes. I would cite first Edward Shanks’s “Drilling in Russell Square,” from the earliest days of the war:
The withered leaves that drift in Russell Square
Will turn to mud and dust and moulder there
And we shall moulder in the plains of France
Before these leaves have ceased from their last dance.
Shanks was all too prophetic. Hundreds of thousands of the drilling men of 1914 and 1915 did moulder in the plains of France, becoming dust in the mud of the battlefields. The spectacle of their makeshift graves inspired one of the most famous of the war poems, by the Canadian John McCrae, himself to be one, of the war dead. Its fame is a principal reason for the British custom of wearing a poppy on Remembrance Sunday:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Those themes were also used by Rupert Brooke in what remains the most famous of all English poems of the war, “The Soldier,” which I can still repeat by heart from childhood memory:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust conceal’d;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Wash’d by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
I cannot prove but I do feel—a poetic certainty—that the idea of making “some corner of a foreign field” a place that would be “forever England” was a principal motivation of the idea of the war cemetery as a pastoral, arcadian garden. It has, unconsciously or not, been the result.
What has been the effect of this. partly intentional, partly accidental effort to honor the hundreds of thousands of British and Imperial war dead within the principles of individual yet uniform commemoration?It is different from that achieved by the French, who also buried their dead individually, but under a cross, which produces en masse a spiky and geometrical effect altogether lacking the mood of repose so immediately felt in all British war cemeteries. It is certainly different from that chosen by the Germans, whose dead lie in multiple or sometimes in mass graves—like that at Langemarck in Belgium, where 36,000 bodies of the students killed in the First Battle of Ypres are buried under a single giant slab—and whose cemeteries, heavy with evergreens and dark oaks, speak only of collective grief and national tragedy. It is also different from that which I associate with American cemeteries. There the small size of the headstones, a pattern chosen after the Civil War, the paucity of inscribed personal detail, and, as at Arlington, the intermixture of large, private memorials, often to generals or distinguished civilians, diminishes the sense both of uniformity and of the importance of the individual; while the absence of flowering plants and horticultural design brings a harshness quite at variance with the gardened serenity of the British equivalent. It may be for such reasons that the United States began to permit during the First World War the repatriation of bodies by bereaved families, an understandable response to grief but one that undermines the principle that those who fought and died in comradeship should also be buried in comradeship.
Of the effect of the method of commemoration chosen by the British toward the end of their national tragedy of 1914-18 I have no doubt. It created a deep bond of unity between the bereaved, and within the nation as a whole, which reached out to comprehend the peoples of the Commonwealth and Empire as well. The emotional touch was so sure that it extinguished—after a brief intense controversy in 1919—all demand for repatriation whatsoever. The dead of the Second World War are buried in exactly the same manner as those of the First, and today the only demand met by the government regarding burial policy is that war widows should be assisted with travel costs in visiting their husbands’ graves. This has been conceded, and elderly women are now traveling as far away as Burma and Malaysia on cemetery pilgrimages—without exception returning consoled, often positively inspired, by the beauty of the setting in which they find their husbands buried.
Often they find a husband’s grave next to that of an Indian Muslim or a Burmese Buddhist, exactly similarly commemorated, and that too has had, if not a unifying, at least a palliative effect. If the British parted with their imperial subjects on the comparatively unacrimonious terms they did, that may be in part due to the fact that they chose to make no distinction in the way or in the place where they buried those who fought the Empire’s wars. Certainly it is remarkable that the rarest of the War Graves Commission’s tasks is the repair of desecration. Their cemeteries in former imperial or colonial territory are almost never desecrated, even at times of outburst of nationalist rancor against the old imperial master.
But then neither are they in countries that were never part of the Empire or Commonwealth—former enemy countries, like Germany, or those that have subsequently fallen into war with Britain, like Argentina or Iraq. Why should that be? To trample the graves of the enemy is an apparently universal if regrettable human instinct. One of the saddest places I have ever seen is the deliberately abandoned and untended German war cemetery at Piontek in Poland, immaculately maintained until January 1945, now a wilderness. The only explanation I can offer for the immunity of the British cemeteries is that Lutyens and Jekyll and Kipling and Ware and their army of anonymous gardeners succeeded in creating something symbolically more powerful than a site for ritual desecration, a site of universally venerable sanctuary. There is a holiness in those cemeteries both of nature and its beauties and of religion in all its forms that defies hatred and brutishness, speaks of the immortal, and touches eternity.
If foreigners are moved by those emanations, how much more the British themselves. When in 1920 they buried an unknown warrior in the national shrine of Westminster Abbey—the first of many unknown warriors later to be buried by other countries—they chose this inscription for his grave: They Buried Him Among the Kings Because He Had Done Good Towards God and Towards His House. In burying their million and more warriors, known and unknown, in cemeteries that resembled and evoked the country-house gardens of the rich and propertied, they in effect buried them, if not among kings, then among knights and lords. It was a decision that ensured the individual remembrance of the most humble, exactly as members of the more famous families are remembered in their ancestral plots, an evergreen and renewable remembrance, a celebration of pedigree and a testament of continual youth.
“I always feel young when I come here” are words I remember from a visitor to another British war cemetery, which holds the dead of the Battle of Normandy in William the Conqueror’s city of Bayeux. The war widow who spoke was one of a party in which all had lost their husbands fifty years before. None had remarried; the years had taken their toll, but they returned each year to place flowers on the graves of men killed in their twenties in the fight to liberate Europe from Hitler in 1944. “I always feel young,” she repeated, “just as if I was the same age as when I last saw him.” She had grown very stout. It was difficult to picture the bride of the months before D-Day. “Do stop, Betty,” one of her friends interrupted, “or you’ll make us all cry.” It was I who was overcome with tears. The row of headstones of young infantrymen of the East Yorkshire Regiment, the roses growing around the feet of their widows, the strange glow of happiness that suffused their faces, were altogether too much for me. I was unable to speak, fortunately not unable to repress my impulse to embrace each in turn; to do so would have been an affront to our Englishness, to the fundamental Englishness of the place and the moment.
It was that same Englishness that overwhelmed my weeping companion in the Suda Bay cemetery on Crete. The tears I had shed in Normandy helped me to understand hers. Of course she would not, in a certain sense, have minded if her son had been killed. For Britain’s war cemeteries create an aesthetic which is actually strong enough to prevail over the agony of maternal or connubial grief. To see a child to the grave brings the harshest pain human sensibility can suffer. Yet to find a child—or a husband or a father—buried as a hero, among coevals and comrades all raised to heroic states by a symbolism central to one’s own culture, is to experience the transcendence of pain through the keenest emotions of pride in family and nation. The garden is a metaphor for the idea of beauty, of renewal, and of immortality to many peoples and many creeds. If this is indeed an age without heroes, seeking monuments that might still touch every human heart, the ideal garden may be what is sought. Certainly it is some image of the two thousand English gardens we have created around the world that allows us to repeat each November on Remembrance Sunday, without any false sentiment, some of the most famous verses the Great War inspired—Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen (September 1914)”—verses that are an epitaph for heroes of any time or place:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
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