How to interpret signs and clues from a British military cemetery

All too many of us have relatives who lie today in the British military cemeteries of the Great War. To visit the cemeteries is a moving and fascinating experience and I would recommend it to anyone. The next best thing – seeing photographs and plans on the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – is also intriguing. But what can you tell about your soldier’s death, just from the location and layout of the cemetery and from information on his headstone? This article gives you some ideas on how to “read” the cemetery.

Cemetery location and layout

Cemeteries that are in the rear areas, away from the battlefield

The further from the front line a man died, the more likely it is that he will lie in a cemetery where the graves are nicely laid in regular lines, with graves fairly uniformly spaced and probably facing the same direction. Typical of these are those cemeteries formed adjacent to Casualty Clearing Stations and Base Hospitals, where there was reasonably safe and unhindered opportunity to give a man a proper burial.


Here is an example: this is Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension. It was made by Casualty Clearing Stations located at the village of Aubigny, west of Arras and several miles away from the front line. The plot was made adjacent to the existing civilian village cemetery. Those men who lie here died in the CCS’s or very close by. The names of this type of cemetery are usually of the nearest town or village.

The graves at Aubigny are arranged in rows, all very regular, with many of the graves being in date sequence as men died and were buried by the staff of the Casualty Clearing Station. This cemetery contains more than 2700 graves, almost all of which are of identified soldiers. This high rate of identification is typical of cemeteries in the rear areas. Note that in this photo graves are facing away from the camera and toward the Cross of Sacrifice (as none of the inscribed headstone details can be seen on the picture).


This extract from a plan of the cemetery shows the area in the photograph. Each grave can be identified as being in a Plot and a Row. Each grave is also numbered. The area marked by dotted lines to the right of the photo marks an area of graves of French soldiers, who died here before the British came to Aubigny. The text description of the cemetery given by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission often gives an idea of which plots were made first, and how the cemetery developed.

Cemeteries that are on or very close to the battlefield

The second clearest type of cemetery is those that were created on or very close to the battlefield and to some extent have been left as they were.


This is La Belle Alliance cemetery, which in the war was well outside Ypres but close up behind the front line. As you can see, expansion of the town has brought industrial buildings and a highway very close to the plot. The cemetery contains just sixty graves. Of these, ten are of unknown soldiers. Many of the sixty are buried in communal (ie shared) graves. The cemetery was named in 1916 from a farmhouse that stood nearby. Many battlefield cemeteries have names from the time, of trenches, battlefield features, infamous road junctions, and so on. They often contain a high proportion of men from the same unit or Division and often have a large number of unknown men.


The haphazard nature of the burials is evident from the plan of the cemetery.


Here is another battlefield cemetery: Quarry Cemetery, near Auchy-les-Mines, is in the very centre of the 1915 Loos battlefield. Left very much as it was, the graves are irregular and in the shelter of a former quarry, used during the battle by medical units. Gaps between graves sometimes indicate that a French, Belgian or German body has been exhumed and taken elsewhere.

Cemeteries created or expanded during post-war battlefield clearance

Many of the battlefield plots and individual graves were cleared after the war, by bringing the bodies into other cemeteries. These post-war expansion cemeteries usually have large, regular layouts and are characterised by a high proportion of unknown soldiers.


The ultimate in this type of cemetery is at Tyne Cot, not far from Zonnebeke near Ypres. It is the largest British military cemetery in the world. Almost all of the graves here were brought into the cemetery as a result of battlefield clearance. Bodies were brought in from nine smaller cemeteries and also as they were found individually or collectively on the battlefields. The rows are regular, the unknowns many. Just under 12000 men lie here, of whom 8300 are unidentified. Clearance cemeteries are found both on the battlefields and behind the lines.


But even Tyne Cot was centred on what was originally a small cemetery of the battlefield type. Note the scattered layout of the original burials, surrounded by the straight ranks of the clearances.

Small plots and individual graves

Finally, many men are buried in small plots or even individual graves. Most of these are to be found in churchyards and civilian cemeteries, but a very few are still where they fell or were originally buried.


Here is an example, of a few men buried in the civilian cemetery at Audregnies. They are of the Cheshire Regiment and died in the same action in the village on 24 August 1914. Note that one man on the left could not be identified.

Clues from grave headstones

In addition to clues from the location, layout and nature of the cemetery itself, much can be told from the details on the grave headstone of the soldier and those about him. Every man, even those who are unidentified, is marked by a standard CWGC headstone. The details usually include his name, regiment, rank, number, decorations and the date of his death; a cross (or other religious emblem such as a Star of David for a Jewish soldier) and in some cases an inscription chosen and paid for by his next of kin. Here are two typical stones with all of the standard features:

Grave headstones

9535 Private Walford and 11911 Private Rice, both of the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment and killed in action during relatively quiet times in front line trenches nearby, are buried in Rue-David Military cemetery. Their stones both carry regimental and personal details, as well as an inscription added by their families. We can safely assume that they lie below the stones.

The records of burials made at the time did not always allow for accurate later identification of the location of a grave. Here are two examples of men who are known to be buried within the cemetery, but not exactly where. Such headstones are usually near the perimeter of the cemetery:


328240 Private Smith-Chappell of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. Killed in action on 29 October 1917, he is known to lie somewhere within the Voormezele Enclosures cemetery, in the village of that name south of Ypres, but not exactly where. His headstone reads “Known to be buried in this cemetery” and “Their glory shall not be blotted out”, which are standard texts for grave markers like this.


4183 Serjeant Loggey DCM of the Machine Gun Corps. Killed in action on 23 April 1918, he is known to lie somewhere within La Clytte Military Cemetery at De Klijte, south of Ypres. His headstone reads “Buried elsewhere in this cemetery”. His family added “In the midst of life we are in death “.

This stone suggests that identification of the man could not be fully confirmed but there was enough evidence to lift him above being an “unknown soldier”. Private 41872 Darley, an 18 year old conscript killed during the Battles of the Lys, lies in Anzac Cemetery near Sailly-sur-la-Lys. Note that his age is not given (despite it being confirmed and written in the cemetery register) and there is no family-added inscription.