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In memoriam

Headstones of the First World War

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage students to consider how they live in the memories of others and God (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.
  • You may wish to begin the assembly with an image or series of images of row upon row of headstones in a cemetery for those killed in the First World War.
  • Have available the song ‘Human’ by The Killers and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


Leader  To stand in a cemetery for those killed in the First World War, such as Tyne Cot in Belgium, and survey row after row of white limestone headstones is an emotional experience. The sheer size of the plot, the thousands of lives represented, stretching out seemingly almost to infinity, impresses on you the cost of war in human terms. Beneath each stone lies the body of someone who died – a real person. Many of those buried there were not long out of school.

Yet these precisely measured rows, ranked like the battalions of troops they mark, represent only part of the picture. These are the bodies of soldiers who died in circumstances that meant burials could be organized for them. These men could be easily identified, their passing marked with a solemn, if brief, service led by the padre. Their resting place is neat and orderly

There are many other memorials scattered throughout France and Belgium. There are clusters of graves, like the one in a former quarry at Auchy-les-Mines, on the site of what were primitive field hospitals. The headstones there are more haphazard, hewn from rough ground, wherever the soil was deep enough. Elsewhere, you can discover individual graves in local cemeteries, side by side with villagers who lived out their normal lives during the early years of the twentieth century. These are the bodies of those who died at the heart of the action, whose burials were hurried at best, simple acts of respect in the heat of battle.

Time has taken its toll on many of the stones. The Portland limestone, from which each headstone is made, is easily affected by rain and wind, particularly the acid rain produced by pollution. It’s reckoned that 90 years is all it takes to gradually erase the carved details of who lies beneath.

Reader 1  A lot of headstones carry the name, rank, service number, regiment and date of death of the people buried beneath them, together with details of any decoration they were awarded. Some have an additional inscription. Families were allowed to provide a tribute, up to 66 characters long. They were charged 3½ old pence per character, up to a maximum charge of £1.

Leader  One surprising feature is that there’s no sense of hierarchy in the way the graves are organized. In a uniform and equal fashion, they are arranged in rows with no attention paid to military rank, social status, age, race or religion. Everyone has the same importance. Every death is valued in exactly the same way.

Reader 2  A surprisingly large number of headstones carry no name at all. These are the graves of soldiers who couldn’t be identified at the time of their burial, because the body was too badly damaged or else there were no identity papers. Even so, none of these is called ‘an unknown soldier’. The inscription on the headstones actually reads ‘Known unto God’.

Leader  Millions of people visit the war cemeteries, many of them to find the grave of someone who was a member of their own family. Even today, DNA research is helping to identify the bodies of those who have been without a name for nearly a century. That’s because it is important to know who they are and where their life story ended. The identity of them as human beings who were born, formed friendships, worked, maybe married and had children is worth knowing because each was a unique human being.


Time for reflection

How would other people describe you to identify you? If they were asked to paint a picture of your life, to tell your story, what would the result be? What might be the inscription they’d compose to sum up the kind of person you are?

Every day, in our words, our actions and our body language, we are each creating an image of the person we are, our identity. Some of it is what we deliberately project in the way we dress, the roles we play in the drama of each day. Other parts of the image are subtler, not presented in public, recognized by only a few close friends.

Some of the headstones suggest a deeper level of identity in addition to this public one. As we have seen, the inscription mentioned being known to God. Believers, of many faiths, would actually say that all of us are known to God. They believe that God knows the most intimate thoughts and secrets we have. They believe that God knows everything about us, our real identity. That’s a sobering thought isn’t it?

So what effect might this sense of our own identity have on the way we live day by day?

For me, it suggests that it’s a good idea, as I wake up, to decide on the way I’m planning to act and speak in the day ahead. It helps me to focus on being positive, supportive, kind and involved so that this is the way people will remember me when it comes to the end of the day. I want the day to have been better for others because they’ve met me.

Finally, I’d like my thoughts, my plans and my intentions to have been pleasing to God, because he knows what I’m really like. 

Dear Lord,
Thank you that we are known by each other for who we are.
Give us today the motivation and ability to create a positive image.


‘Human’ by The Killers

Publication date: July 2014   (Vol.16 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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