Many of you will know that epitaphs of the First and Second World War are a keen interest of mine. The power of the words and the history behind the CWGC headstones is something I’ve written about many times before and I’m often found Tweeting various inscriptions which have caught my eye both at home and abroad!
Lately I have been drawn to short epitaphs and fascinated by the choice of loved ones to use so few characters of the 66 available and how so much meaning can be conveyed in as few as one, or two words. This is demonstrated powerfully by Private Neville Colin Mondy’s grave at Ancre British Cemetery, which I came across in March this year.
Of the dozens of epitaphs I’ve posted on Twitter over the past few months, this one has had the greatest response by far, and yet it is one of simplest. It is within the simplicity of these two words, that we are struck by just a fragment of the overwhelming emotion that Neville’s Father, John, must have felt upon learning of his young son’s death.
When it came to decide on an inscription to mark his resting place, perhaps John thought that no scripture or poem could ever convey the grief or feeling of losing a son of 21. Perhaps in trying to choose parting words, it all felt somewhat superfluous or pointless even. Maybe the words were chosen because no matter the distance, circumstance or time passed, Neville would remain ‘his boy’ and that tells us everything – that he was loved, that he was missed and in turn it reminds us of the scale of loss in the Great War, each grave in Ancre is that of someone’s son, after all…
Of course there is the real possibility that many of these shorter epitaphs resulted simply from financial limitations of the families. Then one wonders, what they might have said if they could have afforded to say more?
Whilst I was visiting Shorncliffe Military Cemetery last week I spotted the grave of Hubert Charles Edward Huckstep whose epitaph reads simply:
Until what? I asked myself. Perhaps ‘Until the day breaks and shadows flee away’ – a common choice among First World War epitaphs. Yet, I’m not so sure, as I always pay close attention to any punctuation included on inscriptions, and here we see quotation marks. The epitaph was chosen by Hubert’s wife, Eleanor Mary. Perhaps it was a reference to something Hubert had said to her ‘until we meet again’ maybe? We will of course never know but as I was pondering this, I was drawn to another headstone with a single word epitaph a short distance away. ‘Asleep’.
It was only after reading this that I realised these two men shared the same surname, and in fact this grave belonged to Hubert’s son – Hubert John William Huckstep, who died during the Second World War.
How tragic for Eleanor, to have lost both her husband and her only son. One can imagine the fears she must have had when her son joined up and for these fears to come to fruition, well, I don’t believe that I would have been able to find the words either. ‘Asleep’ he is not, for he has died, as his Father died, a member of the Royal Air Force.
Sometimes it is what we don’t say, that speaks loudest. In the empty spaces between the words, we sense the absence and the loss. As we read the epitaphs we are looking at brief, individual accounts of the impact of the Great War. In taking the time to understand their origin and meaning, we can learn much about the people who chose them, the culture of the time, and the unifying grief that swept the Commonwealth. We can and do of course impart our own meaning and sentiment onto them. Some are clear cut and their meaning cannot be argued, others are open to 101 different interpretations. For me, this is true wonder of them.