A Study of First World War Epitaphs in the British Cemeteries of the Western Front by Trefor Jones


The First World War or ‘The Great War’ as it was known up until the start of the Second World War in 1939 is the subject behind this website’s content.

The Western Front claimed the lives of nearly three-quarters of a million men of the British Empire. Approximately 411,600 of these casualties have named graves in France and Belgium; about 158,700 other graves contain remains which were not identified; and the names of about 313,700 men are listed on memorials to the missing. The strict ‘no repatriation’ of the dead policy, regardless of rank, wealth or influence, means that the graves of the fallen now lie in rows of white, within immaculately maintained cemeteries which line the French and Belgian countryside to this day under the care of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Each one marked by an identical headstone, one of the only mark’s of individuality is the personal inscription or ‘epitaph’ as it’s known at the base of the stone, chosen by the next of kin to the soldier.

The total number of cemeteries throughout Belgium and France which contain Commonwealth War Graves from the Great War is around 2,200; around half of the named graves in these bear an epitaph chosen by the families. And it must be taken into account that these inscriptions were in most cases chosen several years after the deaths of relatives which can sometimes reflect the messages on the epitaph.

Supporting IWGC Correspondance

All of these original Final Verification forms and letters from the First World War upon which the next of kin requested their personnal inscriptions were unfortunatly burnt in the early 1970’s by the CWGC. These could have provided much more insight and information into the subject but are now sadly lost.

Contrasting Views

The British government, after much debate went ahead with a charge of three and a half pence per letter fee for the epitaphs with a maximum charge set at £1. This was partly instituted so that the next of kin would feel an increased ‘ownership’ of the grave but was met by severe unrest from family members of the fallen who argued their loved ones had paid this price many times over with their lives and blood. This pressure subsequently resulted in a withdrawral of these charges to the next of kin and these charges now being offered as a ‘voluntary’ payment, by this time however many of the poorer families had already been deterred and is the reason behind so many WW1 headstone’s lacking a personal inscription, confusion prevailed until as late as 1927.
It also has to be noted that these ‘debts’ were not vigourously chased up by the CWGC; there is nothing on the forms requesting payment up front – simply a promise by the next of kin to pay the amount due at some stage and it seems examples do exsist where help was offered with payments.
As well as this charge there was also a maximum character limit set of 66 letters, including punctuation and spacing between words.

The Canadian & Australian government’s decided from the beginning not to impose any form of charge for the epitaph lettering and all costs were met by the government.

The New Zealand authorities however, stood out against this decision to charge for epitaphs on the grounds that, it being inevitable that not all families could or would be able to afford these charges and so a precedent was set for all, depriving the next of kin any option of leaving an epitaph upon a New Zealander’s gravestone.

About Me

Thank you for visiting my website which I hope will be of as much interest to you than the subject is to myself. I have a strong general interest in military history but ever since my first visit out to the battlefields of Northern France and Flanders on a school trip my interest and passion for The First World War was ignited and has since became an obsession for me. I have spent countless hours deep in thought as I pass through the rows of white headstones within all CWGC cemeteries, and the one thing that never fails to stop me in my tracks and make me pause to reflect is the epitaph inscribed upon its base of these young soldiers graves. It is these personnal last messages that grip me more tightly to the foot of a grave or to the brink of a tear than any battle statistic, history literature or war film ever could, it is within these words that evoke such raw human emotion that I find myself drifting into the mind sets of the loved ones family themselves.

Purpose of this Site

The reason for which I have created this website is to record, collate and appreciate these final responses left by grieving families when given the opportunity to choose an epitaph to be inscribed on a loved-ones headstone; a headstone which in most cases would never be seen by themselves. These inscriptions in my opinion are designed for the battlefield visitor. That said for allot of people worldwide getting the opportunity to visit these sites is not an option and this is the reasoning for creating the site.