In my study I have a grainy oval photograph of Mr and Mrs Weldrick from Barnsley, both stern-faced and wearing hats, standing behind their son’s grave in a field in Flanders. The Weldricks had two sons and two daughters. At the age of 16, one of the daughters “got herself into trouble”, as they used to say, and the baby was brought up as one of the Weldricks’ own children. That baby was my grandmother. For years, she would also make the annual pilgrimage to Belgium to put flowers on her brother’s grave – though he was really her uncle. I remember that she kept pressed cuttings of the flowers. And this year, for the first time, I am also going and taking my own son with me.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission celebrates its centenary this year. For 100 years it has buried the dead, collected information about them, and maintained those distinctive white graves in famously well-kept cemeteries. Never before, and certainly never on this scale, had the bodies of ordinary soldiers been treated with such individual respect. For centuries, the rank and file were discarded in mass graves, with only the officers deemed worthy of individuation.
With the work of the War Graves Commission, other ranks were given the same honour as officers; they were all buried alongside each other, all with the same sized headstone. This democracy in death was revolutionary stuff at the time, and there were many who complained that the commission gave the families of the dead little choice in how their loved ones were to be commemorated.
“What freedom is it if you will not even allow the dead bodies of people’s relatives to be cared for in the way they like. It is a memorial not to freedom but to rigid militarism,” complained Viscount Wolmer, in a parliamentary debate on the subject in 1920. Some from such aristocratic families found it particularly egregious that all the bodies were to be treated the same. But the TUC spoke for many when it insisted that those visiting the dead “will expect to find equal honour has been paid to all who have made the same sacrifice, and this result cannot be attained if differences are allowed in the character and design of the memorials erected”.
It was a fascinating debate – basically, freedom v equality – and though I cannot imagine the result being the same today, the fact that the War Graves Commission carried the day meant that the graveyards of the first world war stand as a powerful witness to the final obliteration of all social divisions.
My son and I hire cycles in Ypres, and follow the map out of town into the sunny blissful pastoral that is the Flanders countryside. This must have been what it was like before the guns and the trenches, full of cows and goats and birdsong. We pass several little cemeteries, some with just a few hundred men. And then to George’s final resting place, at the edge of a field, a long way from Barnsley.
Private George Weldrick of the 2nd Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, died of his wounds 100 years ago next April. He was 25. His older brother had been killed at the start of the war but his body was never found. So, too, both of his cousins. But George fought throughout the worst of it, at the front, in the trenches, in the infamous Ypres Salient surrounded by lagoons of mud and death. In the end he was killed during the German spring offensive of 1918.
As far as I can tell, George was wounded in the same battle that the Germans let loose 2,000 tonnes of mustard gas. Many were blinded. A few days later, he died of his wounds. Standing in this lovely field, I cannot begin to imagine the horror he experienced.
I don’t much care for the larger cemeteries such as Tyne Cot or, worst of all, the Roman-style triumphalism of the Menin Gate – a “sepulchre of crime” as Siegfried Sassoon rightly called it. These places rally a militaristic spirit that doesn’t sit right with me. But out in the fields of Flanders, away from the trumpets, in the little cemeteries, behind a hedge, at the back of someone’s garden, there is space and calm to remember the stupidity of war. Lest we forget.
• Giles Fraser was in Ypres to make a documentary on how the first world war changed the way we remember the dead. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 10 November 2017