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To the fallen

The evidence of absence

Archaeologists and historians use a term which I like – “the evidence of absence”, as opposed to an absence of evidence. My posts are about the history to be discovered out there, hiding in plain sight. But what about the history that confronts you because it’s not there? I am thinking about graveyards and cemeteries in this country, and about an absence of evidence  – an absence of war graves. 

Look around any church graveyard – as I have more than occasionally been known to do. You’ll be hard put to find the tombs of  service personnel who fell in action in the first or second world war. And this  is because of key decisions made in the first world war by the government. 

Equality in death

They were keen to avoid a class divide between how the bodies of officers were treated, compared to those of the non-officer ranks.  This was sparked by increasing disquiet over the repatriation to Britain  early on in the First World War,  of the bodies of soldiers who came from more well-off families. They could afford the considerable expense, but the working-class parents of the likes of poor Tommy Atkins could not. 

So the Imperial (later, the Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was created, and put into motion the creation of the vast overseas war grave cemeteries, where the fallen were buried at the site of the conflicts.  You can see them all over northern Europe, vast acres of gravestones, uniform in appearance. There is no difference between those of officers or those of ordinary ranks.

Memorial at Thiepval, Somme, France


There was anger and outrage over the policy from the more monied classes in Britain.  But the policy held, thanks in great part  to the efforts of eminent men such as  Rudyard Kipling, who had himself lost his only son during the war. Kipling wrote an eloquent  paper arguing for the cause. The booklet  was widely read and distributed and helped get public opinion on side. The Commission’s work started in the closing years of the first world war and  continues today. 

Empty tombs

So, the graves you will see in your local cemetery in Britain, commemorating a serving member of the forces, will likely be of those who died of their wounds back in “Blighty”.  Those in the services who died overseas were buried where they fell. They were  commemorated collectively – by the memorials and cenotaphs which you find in almost every British town. And where does the word cenotaph come from?  It derives from the Greek “kenos taphos” which means, aptly – empty tomb. 

The war in the air

Stow Maries airfield – in the hangar

There are a couple of  exceptions to this rule. There is one case, where you will actually find graves in Britain of those who fell in battle. These are for those who died as a result of incidents in the air. In the early days of The Royal Flying Corps, there were many accidents.

Stow Maries airfield – Ward Room

In my home county of Essex you can find  graves and memorials to such events, reflecting the number of early airfields created in the south-east of England. Why in the south-east? Because the countryside is flat, and it’s close to northern France and Belgium, from where enemy action originated. For those early aircraft, a short flying distance was critical, with their limited fuel capacity.

There is actually just one surviving first world war aerodrome in England, at Stow Maries in Essex, well worth a visit. Many of the original buildings have been preserved  (and you can take tea in the airmen’s Mess). Excellent tableaux  depict military day-to-day activity,  and you can feel how unpredictable and chaotic life must have been for those men – and boys.



Stow Maries airfield – tableau

In the parish records, and the graveyards scattered around that area of Essex is the evidence of how precarious the lives of those early airmen was.

Pilots killed in flying incidents, First World War. Stow Maries, Essex. Average age: 21


Memorial to a flying accident, First World War. Near Shotgate, Essex



And in the middle of an Essex field, only a few miles from the Stow Maries airfield,  there is the memorial. It’s to two first world war pilots who lost their lives due to a mid-air collision – taking off in fog before the days of electronic navigation aids and efficient communications. So poignant.




The foe in the air

The second exception to my “absence of evidence” rule are the graves of the enemy, who died in Britain. There is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. Within it, there is a German military cemetery where the bodies of German dead of both World Wars are now buried. Inevitably, many are the bodies of air crews. Buried in the cemetery are the bodies of the crew of a German Zeppelin, which was shot down and which then crashed in a field in Billericay in Essex, in 1916.

Memorial, to 1916 crash: Billericay, Essex


All the crew died, most being young men in their teens or twenties. They were originally buried in the local churchyard, but a few years ago, at the request of the German government, their bodies were transferred to Cannock Chase. A memorial marks the spot in Billericay, where the Zeppelin fell.



Hiding in plain sight

“Evidence of absence” is an interesting way to look at history. Why are there no graves of  common soldiers in  old graveyards anywhere, from conflicts before the first world war? And why no  communal cemeteries for those conflicts overseas? Because the foot soldiers  were not considered  important. and so the dead were buried  where they fell. No Thiepvals  for them.

I was re-watching Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” recently.  In it, Hector recounts to his history boys  how, after the  Napoleonic wars, “entrepreneurs” travelled to mainland Europe to collect the bones of  fallen soldiers. Collected for processing as agricultural fertilizer. Even more grisly – the teeth of the dead were collected to make sets of false teeth. What a change of attitude in a hundred years!  It’s worth keeping  your history eyes open for what’s not there.

Post script: “We also Serve”

I was finishing this post on the 75th anniversary of VE day, and was quietly  remembering the brave folk who served their country. And then, I  recalled another Essex grave for a decorated aerial warrior. 

In Ilford, Essex is the PDSA’s Animal Cemetery. And buried there are 12 of the many recipients of the Dickin Award. This award was set up during the second world war. It’s bestowed on animals nominated for gallantry during the course of conflict. It is still awarded today. The Dickin medal reads “For gallantry”,  and “We also Serve”.

 Reading the description of the  gallant  deeds of these animals does bring a tear to the eye.  Many of the medals have been  given to dogs and horses, but at least a dozen have been awarded to – homing pigeons, for their service during the second world war.

Air crews would take pigeons on their flights into enemy territory, so that if  they ditched, they could release the pigeons to fly home and alert the RAF to their plight. Several lives were saved because of this initiative. Pigeons were also used to convey secret messages between Britain and resistance groups, and later, allied troops, in continental Europe. No mobile phones or satellites in those days.

And one  pigeon  awarded the Dickin medal, was called Mary of Exeter.  She carried many secret messages to and from France, despite being shot at several times, and once wounded. Mary even escaped when her pigeon loft in Exeter was bombed by the Luftwaffe. She is buried in the PDSA Cemetery in Ilford, and here is her gravestone.  

Grave of Mary of Exeter, in PDSA Cemetery, Ilford, Essex


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