The Flower Power of the CWGC

This week saw the launch of the CWGC Gardening Then & Now campaign, highlighting the horticultural history of the CWGC and some of the remarkable personal stories of their gardeners, both past and present. The CWGC has become synonymous with beautiful floral displays and impeccably maintained lawns and though each of their 2,500 or so war cemeteries are unique in their setting and atmosphere, all are instantly recognisable through a number of defining features.

The Great War saw Britain catapulted into an a period of unprecedented, collective, emotional trauma and coping with this became deeply intertwined with commemorating the dead. Remembrance and commemoration on a personal, local and international scale was a cathartic release for a grieving nation and so it is no surprise that considerations on the matter began long before the Armistice.

In 1917 Sir Frederic Kenyon (then Director of the British Museum) was asked by the fledgling IWGC to write a report reviewing the various proposals for cemetery layouts that the commission had received from some of the most prominent architects and garden designers of the day. Kenyon was deeply aware of the importance of symbolism and ensuring that the foundations on which the cemeteries were designed reflected the desires and needs of those who would visit. In his report, Kenyon recommended that each cemetery should have a central monument ‘expressive of the higher feelings with which we regard our dead’. He stressed it should be capable of having religious sentiment impressed upon it by the mourner, yet remain inoffensive to all and embody the idea of undying remembrance. And so it was that Sir Edwin Lutyens’ vision of ‘one great fair stone of fine proportions’ was chosen. The simple design, interpretable as an alter, inscribed with ‘some fine thought or words of sacred dedication’ (which were of course later chosen by Rudyard Kipling) would stand in permanence to represent the sacrifice of a nation. Whilst Kenyon was conscious that the religious persuasion of all the fallen should be respected, Britain was a Christian Empire and it was therefore decided that a second monument, that of a Cross, should also be included in each cemetery where culturally appropriate.

Kenyon’s vision that ‘the cross and stone combined would be the universal mark of the British war cemetery’ rings absolutely true over 100 years later. Reginald Blomfield’s Crosses of Sacrifice shine like stars in the fields of the Somme and Flanders which are forever darkness to so many, and the perpetuity of Lutyens’ Stones of Remembrance seem to pull at their surroundings, effecting an unparalleled emotional gravity at times. They are without doubt the most recognisable features of the CWGC cemeteries today. Yet to me, it is not these impressive structures which speak loudest of remembrance, commemoration and loss. When I visit the Silent Cities it is the plants, the flowers and the life in absolute poetic juxtaposition to the rows upon rows of dead, which strike hardest at my heart and soul.

For millennia and across all cultures of the world, plants have had symbolic meaning assigned to them. In our busy, modern day lives we often overlook this subtle language but it remains powerful – demonstrated in the gift of a single red rose being an almost universal symbol of love and affection. It was in 19th century Britain that the means of communicating via flowers or ‘floriography’ came into its own, as flowers were used to convey sentiment that strict Victorian culture made it difficult to display openly. During the Edwardian era, the Arts and Crafts movement made gardening the height of fashion. A stalwart of this horticultural renaissance was Gertrude Jekyll who collaborated closely with friend Edwin Lutyens to produce some of the most beautiful manor houses and gardens in the country.

Gertrude Jekyll was also a good friend of Frederic Kenyon, so it is not surprising that he consulted her on the matter of horticulture and how best it could be utilised in the CWGC cemeteries. Jekyll was known for her love of the English ideal and her artistic yet practical approach to garden design. Although she is not formally credited in the CWGC archives, it is known that Lutyens sent his friend a number of cemetery plans and that her planting schemes, in particular her hardy flower borders and use of colour heavily influenced the CWGC approach to gardening in it’s early days and continue to do so to this day.

When surrounded by loss on such an incomprehensible scale as that seen on the Western Front, it is a comfort to witness the beauty of the natural world reborn and remade, living and changing with the seasons. The Portland Stone of the uniform headstones and monuments are quite the opposite; they are unchanging, they are permanent. The horticulture provides the light, the balance and the hope, and so I can come back to something touched upon in a previous blog by the James Wearn – the healing power of the botanical landscape. Visiting the CWGC cemeteries on a summers day is to be transported to an English country garden or indeed where large numbers of soldiers of other nationalities are buried effort is made to reflect their homelands in the planting to obtain a similar effect. Being able to simply observe the beauty, the life, the brightness and joy in these pristine gardens must have been a source of such great comfort to those early battlefield pilgrims. The effect the gardens have today on many visitors, over 100 years later, is testament to their power.

Without the staff who work to tend these gardens of the dead, without their dedication, hard work and skilful schedule of maintenance, the Silent Cities would be very different places indeed. No matter where in the world the cemeteries are located and whatever their size or the challenges faced – from climate and environmental, to access in times of conflict – the hard work of the garden and maintenance teams of the CWGC ensures that the foundations which underpin it remain as true in 2019 as they were in 1917 and that the aims laid out by Frederic Kenyon are well and truly fulfilled –

no labour is spared, and nothing that careful thought can provide is wanting to pay the tribute of reverence and honour which is due to those that have fallen for their country. It is in the hope that the scheme here put forward will secure for all time the permanence of this tribute and its embodiment in a memorial worthy of the Empire and of the sons (and daughters also) who have given their lives for it.


Sir Frederic Kenyon

With thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Sources:

  • Frederic Kenyon, War Graves. How the cemeteries abroad will be designed. Report to the Imperial War Graves Commission by Lieut.-Colonel Sir Frederic Kenyon KCB, Director of the British Museum (London: HMSO, 1918)

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