The Official Format for War Cemetery Gravestones

Once the Imperial War Graves Commission took over the cemeteries, the temporary wooden or metal cross erected by the Army was replaced by the final gravestone.

These markers followed a very restrictive format which aimed at uniformity because  the fundamental principle underlying the work was that all the dead were equal.

The correct military emblem for the formation to which the dead man had belonged took its place at the top of the stone, and at the foot of the stone were the four lines permitted for the relatives’ tribute.

These individual inscriptions were clearly very valued by the families, and many are extremely touching. Some are high-flown, some poetic, some absolutely personal, such as that for Corporal J R Martin of the Rifle Brigade, who was killed on 21 July 1944 and buried at Banneville-la-Campagne. It is written almost in the form of a note by his wife, Joan, and his mother:

Parted by fate.

You and our baby Jackie.

Will meet you again.

Joan, mum.

However, these personal inscriptions were not permitted for New Zealanders; their Government maintained the position it had adopted after the First World War and denied the relatives this small consolation on the grounds of equality. *



* After the First World War the New Zealand government decided that the proposed lettering charge (which was only partially implemented and then dropped altogether) worked against the principle of equality; this position then had to be maintained for the following war, otherwise there would have been unequal treatment for the dead of the two world wars. See Grant Tobin, ‘Personal Inscriptions’, New Zealand Communication Trench (June 2011), pp.11-14.

There are, however, a few First World War exceptions to the New Zealand ban, for example at Courcelles-au-Bois cemetery in France.


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