Epitaphs of the Great War
by Sarah Wearne
published by Uniform, an imprint of Unicorn Publishing Group
The Somme volume – hardback ISBN 978 1 910500 52 1 – published 2016
Passchendaele volume – hardback ISBN 978 1 910500 65 1 – published 2017
The last 100 days volume – – hardback ISBN 978 1 911604 62 4 – published 2018
reviewed by Chris Baker
Three very nicely produced, small format volumes that were published to coincide with the centenary of the periods that they cover. They draw upon the considerable work carried out by the author in producing her blog and twitter feed on the subject. I found them enjoyable and moving, but must point out to would-be readers that the size of text used is very small and fine. I have pretty good eyesight for reading but I found this to be rather wearing after a while. The blog, I am pleased to say, is much more readily legible.
Those who have visited the cemeteries in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be aware that many of the grave headstones include a personal inscription. It was limited to a maximum of 66 characters (although there are a small number of exceptions) and was the only way in which the next of kin could personalise the stone. For the great many men who disappeared or whose remains were unidentifiable, they were left without an epitaph. For others, whose families had died out or were for some reason uncontactable, no inscription was added. A charge of up to 3.5 pence per letter was at first proposed, which may also have deterred some families. There are now some 200,000 headstones of the Great War with transcriptions and Sarah Wearne has noted many of the more unusual or notable ones for the purposes of her blog. Many are quotations; many poetic; some are not in English. The reasons for their selection are fascinating in themselves and in most cases we can only speculate as to why the particular wording was chosen. In the case of my wife’s great uncle, the choice made was a rather dull if accurate “Died of wounds”. The other two members of my family were never identified and have no known grave.
Each of these volumes includes 100 or more epitaphs, once chosen to represent each day of the period: for example, the Somme runs from Captain Richard Leonard Hoare on 1 July 1916 (“And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations”) to Pte Peter LcLaughlan on 18 November 1916 (“For home and glory – inserted by his mother Helen McLaughlan – RIP”. Sarah Wearne has researched the individual, his family background and the nature of the epitaph, and each is covered on a single page of the book. The love, grief of human loss, sadness at lost potential, and the care and thoughtfulness that went into the selection of the text soon becomes evident. The books make for sobering yet rather uplifting reading.
The books do not have an index as such but there is a final listing of the individuals, broken down by cemetery and cross-referenced to the page.