This talk will be on 'The Great War and Remembrance', specifically the post-war battlefield clearances and the creation of the iconic (Imperial, now Commonwealth) War cemeteries. Here's some copy that describes both the talk and the book I've written about post-war Flanders.
At the end of the First World War there were over 150,000 graves scattered across the old Western Front. There were men lying unburied where they fell in the final push for victory. And there were the missing - bodies that were painstakingly located and buried in the three years after the Armistice. This is one of the great untold stories of the Great War, the story of the men who served their King and country first with a rifle, then a shovel, burying the bodies abandoned on the road to victory and establishing a small Anglo-Belgian community it Ypres that was to survive until the outbreak of World War Two.
Making the iconic war cemeteries took time and effort. It was dirty and dangerous work - decomposing corpses had to be examined and identified before being reburied with dignity and honour. Unexploded shells and grenades littered the old battlefields. Trapped pockets of gas could be released at any moment. Finding, exhuming and burying the bodies was a thankless task, but many servicemen stayed on to do just that - to find their fallen comrades and ensure they were laid to rest in a marked grave. What kind of men did this? Well, a lot of them were the same men who, months and years earlier, had been fighting on the same soil they were now digging. Some stayed on reluctantly; others volunteered. There was an extra 2/6 a day for those who did. And some, it seems, couldn’t quite bring themselves to go back home. At least, not straight away.
I’ve been fascinated by what motivated and inspired these men since accidentally stumbling across the post-war work of the British Army in the years 1918-1921. But the story doesn’t even end when, three long years after the Armistice, the army finally packs up and goes home. Because a significant number of ex-servicemen couldn’t bring themselves to go ‘home’ at all and remained in what was to become their home in France and Flanders until, in some cases, having to hastily evacuate on the eve of yet another war in 1939.
- Tim Atkinson