Whether you are visiting a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Military Cemetery for the very first time or as a regular visitor, there are a number of things that give you that first visual stimulus…the neat rows of headstones, the trees, the architecture, the planting. Closer inspection reveals the care and attention of the Commission’s forefathers in ensuring that each headstone is special and unique to the soldier it is commemorating: the Regimental badge in pride of place, the soldiers name and military detail, and then on the majority of headstones, that intensely personal and family gift, the Epitaph. Men who fought with the Dominion forces, irrespective of their military role, are commemorated with their national symbol. Many of these have epitaphs too with, for my money, those from Australia often being the most heart-rending. And then, the men of New Zealand, whose headstones don’t bear an Epitaph, the reasons for which have been lost to time, but, so it appears, is largely assumed to be due to the costs involved and the decision of the New Zealand government that families had already paid enough by experiencing the loss of a loved one and no further financial payment was acceptable.
But, the Commission is anything but a stickler for rules – variations in the wording to commemorate Unknown Soldiers graves, the adoption of the broad cross on some Canadian and Australian headstones, British regiments which usually have the Latin cross suddenly appearing with the badge within the broad cross, epitaphs well over the set approved number of characters and, if you know where to look, epitaphs on New Zealand soldiers headstones.
Like many of us, I was presented with this quirk to the rules a few years ago, by someone who had seen it on a thread on a forum. I’m not bringing you ground breaking research here, just a window to the variations on a theme that makes up the collective element of remembrance. I don’t know why these six soldiers have epitaphs, while the rest of their countrymen don’t. The graves are predominately of enlisted men, with only one officer amongst the number. They were all born in parts of Britain, but so were many of their comrades. Five of the six are buried in the same cemetery: one is buried elsewhere. They were all lost in 1918, most in the same series of operations during the German Spring Offensive. It’s just one of the seemingly inexplicable elements that makes visiting the cemeteries such a special experience.
Private Donald McLean
Donald served with the 2nd Wellington Regiment, and was killed on 29th March 1918. He was the son of Angus and Annie McLean, of Clashmore, Clashnessie, Lochinver, Sutherlandshire and is buried at Doullens Communal Cemetery No 1. His epitaph reads, ‘I Am The Resurrection And The Life. Inserted By His Sorrowing Parents’.
Serjeant Harry Osborne Black
Buried in the same Cemetery, and killed on the same day as Donald (and yes, serving in the same regiment) Serjeant Black was the son of John Henry and Mary Black, of Dundooan, Coleraine, Ireland. His epitaph reads, ‘He died that others might live, ever remembered by his parents and brothers’.
Brigadier General Harry Townsend Fulton CMG, DSO
As the last of only three New Zealanders who were killed holding the rank of Brigadier General, it might be expected that an exception may have been made for a man of such rank, but whilst Harry Fulton was an Army man through and through, (he was born in India as a son to a Lieutenant-General in the Royal Artillery), he never actually lived for any time in England. Perhaps it was his wife, working as a nurse at the New Zealand Hospital in Brockenhurst who managed to get as his epitaph, ‘I Thank My God Upon Every Remembrance Of You’. He too is buried in Doullens Communal Cemetery No 1.
Rifleman Alexander Macrae
Alexander served with the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, and died on 5th May 1918. He is buried in the adjacent cemetery, Doullens Communal Cemetery No 2 (technically a separate cemetery, but you can easily walk between the two) and is also a Scot, from Ross-shire. His epitaph is one that is seen on many headstones, ‘Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That A Man Lay Down His Life For His Friends’.
Rifleman John Mair
Another Scot and another New Zealand Rifle Brigade man, but from the 4th Battalion, killed just a week after Alexander, on the 12th May 1918. John’s parents lived in Mount Vernon, Glasgow and his epitaph reads, ‘Until the Day Breaks and the Shadows Flee Away’. John is also commemorated on the local war memorial in Sandymount Cemetery, close to where his parents lived.
Private Norman Williams
Keeping the Celtic connection, Norman Williams is the last of our six, and is buried in the small Courcelles-au-Bois Communal Cemetery Extension. The records provided by the CWGC show that his parents lived in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, but, given his epitaph, it is my guess that they returned there after living in Bristol, which is presumably where Norman lived before heading to New Zealand. He served with the 2nd Wellington Regiment and was killed on 6th April 1918. His epitaph reads, ‘Beloved Son of George & Ruth Williams Bristol, Eng He Died For You And Me’.
Courcelles-au-Bois is an interesting location to visit, as it is one of the few cemeteries that has the red Corsehill or Locharbriggs sandstone to mark the graves. As a separate aside, I am aware of six cemeteries that have this stone as opposed to the more usual Portland or Hopton Wood limestone for grave markers. I wonder if there is a definitive list of these?
I know of colleagues who have also found these graves when spending a bit of time by themselves, as neither of the cemetery locations are on the main ‘tour group’ routes, so if you are in the habit of going off the beaten track when you can, maybe check these locations. Not only that, but seeing something as opposed to reading it or hearing about it allows you to be more specific should you have interest expressed from any fellow travellers in this particular topic.