The Power of the Epitaph: Why the Bayeux War Cemetery Continues to Inspire
Have you ever heard someone say, “When I die, put this on my gravestone.” You probably have. Chances are you have even said that yourself a couple of times. But have you ever stopped to really consider how you will be remembered after you die?
For as long as I can remember, my father has always made it a very important part of our education to bring us to cemeteries, and the older the cemetery, the better. This has always a special part of family trips for me, even when I was very little. Some of my favorite memories of the New England coast are visiting the graves of the founding fathers and mothers of America. This is not because I have a weird fascination with death or anything else macabre and dark, but because I love learning about the men and women who shaped history. Multi-generational families can be found buried in one plot, such as the John Adams family and the Cotton Mather family. Then there is Cole’s Hill in Plymouth which holds the graves of many Pilgrims including William Bradford and William Brewster, as well as the grave of missionary Adoniram Judson, all men who left legacies that have lasted hundreds of years.
Today, you can learn about anyone or anything on the internet if you just type it in. If you are more patient you can read about your subject of choice in books, letters, journals, newspaper articles, sometimes even film and documentaries. Yet I have found a very intimate way to get a personal glimpse into someone's life is to look at their gravestone. What is written on someone’s gravestone is the final statement that will be read about them for the next 200 years. The person might have been long forgotten, but their epitaph, the words on the stone marking their remains, will give testimony to their life in one way or another.
When I am dead and in my grave,
And all my bones are rotten.
While reading this you'll think of me
When I am long forgotten!
As in all writing, the spectrum between profound, morbid, mundane, humorous, and even absurd exists on gravestones. This grave from Nova Scotia takes on a bit of the tongue in cheek:
Here lies Ezekial Aikle:
The Good Die Young
And not all are truthful. The Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary says of the word epitaph, “The epitaphs of the present day are crammed with fulsome compliments never merited. Can you look forward to the honor of a decorated coffin, a splendid funeral, a towering monument--it may be a lying epitaph.”
Sometimes, if you pay attention, a phrase, a quote, or even as much as a sentence can give the reader an especially distinctive and even profound summary of that person's life. Were they of noble character? Or a villain? Were they loved by family? Or did they die lonely? What is written on that stone could very well be the ultimate summation of that person's life.
One of the most moving aspects of our time in Normandy was visiting the Omaha Memorial and Bayeux War Cemeteries. Both were special and unique. At Omaha were rows and rows of plain white crosses, with only the name, date, state, and regiment. It was magnificent in its simplicity. But the British War Cemetery in Bayeux surprised me by its beauty. Walking into it was truly like walking into a piece of England. It had a peacefulness and tranquility about it that was enhanced by the well tended gardens surrounding each grave and going on down the uniform rows. There are 4,648 men of varying nationalities buried in this cemetery, but the majority of it is made up of the flower of England’s youth.
There was so much to take in, but the most poignant part for me was to see the inscriptions that were written on almost all of the graves- quotes or last messages from the family of the deceased. Of the 4,116 English, Scottish, and Canadian soldiers buried there, there is not much we know, who they were, what were they like, etc. But what we do know is this, what is written on their epitaphs tells us a story that is one of the greatest and most powerful stories that has ever been told: A loving son, a brother, or husband did his duty for God and country and willingly sacrificed his life for the lives of his loved ones and future generations.
“Greater love,” says the Bible, “hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This was the text for many a gravestone. I wish that I could write an article on each epitaph, and the meaning and essence of what they communicate to future generations like you and me. But alas for time. Instead, I have included below some of the epitaphs that most struck me. Some are elaborate, others more plain, but they each communicate a message; of bravery and courage, of love and heartbreak, sometimes very personal.
Signalman P.H. Ellis’s grave spoke of a loving mother: “My Only Child, he gave his all. Till We Meet Again -Mother.” Somewhere in England, the mother of P.H. Ellis lived out her life without grandchildren to renew her youth because her son “gave his all.”
For Private S. Coles of the Royal Army Medical Corps it was a a duty well done: “He died his country to defend, A British soldier’s noble end.”
The wife of A. Fishwick, Royal Engineer, would always remember her husband as one who: “Gave his heart to home, His soul to God. Fought for King and country wife and baby.”
Many Englishmen were still remembering the futile losses of the first World War; thought to be the “war to end all wars.” But it was not; and it is very probable that the suffering and the bloodshed was in the forefront of the minds of those who inscribed “He made his sacrifice for us. Grant it is not in Vain” on the grave of Royal Dragoon R.J. Colley after his death.
A very beautiful one that can ring true to the heart of every Englishman was Royal Marine, J.R. Rigby’s: “There’s some corner of a foreign land that is forever England.”
As a lasting memory to Lieutenant T.W.R. Healy of the RAF, it was chosen to have this inscription written on his grave: “I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.” Would that all could say as his stone said, for truly he had.
It would take a long time to properly go through and catalogue all the epitaphs which were written in that cemetery, but, certainly, one of the ones which moved me the most was the grave of Paul Abbott Baillon of the Royal Air Force who died November, 1940, age 26. His grave simply stated, “One of the few.” That one simple phrase communicated more about valour and heroism than a thousand words in the Telegraph or Wallstreet Journal could have. What do I mean by this, and what does it mean, “One of the few?”
P.A Baillon: One of the few who had so gallantly defended England during her darkest hours when invasion seemed imminent, and the hope of a empire nearly gone. One of the few RAF pilots (544 to be exact) who gave their lives during the Battle of Britain. One of Churchill’s few. The few he spoke of when he would make the remark that would forever go down in the annals of history, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Yes. P.A. Baillon RAF, was “one of the few.”
As I write this now, in retrospect, and remember the words I read on these markers, words of the courage of youth, the heartbreak of a wife, the love of a mother for an only son, and the duty of a soldier, this verse from the poet G.K.Chesterton keeps coming into mind. “They died to save their country and they only saved the world.” How true this statement is. They died to save their England. Our boys died to save America. And instead, they saved the world. What beauty in their sacrifice. What can we do to pay them back in some small way for the sacrifice they made? There is nothing we can do to fully repay it, but we can try by remembering these men, the veterans of WWII.
How grateful I am for this little look into their lives and character as I read these epitaphs. Stop in a cemetery and take a look.
Were I that wandering citizen whose city is the world,
I would not weep for all that fell before the flags were furled;
I would not let one murmur mar the trumpets volleying forth
How God grew weary of the kings, and the cold hell in the north.
But we whose hearts are homing birds have heavier thoughts of home,
Though the great eagles burn with gold on Paris or on Rome,
Who stand beside our dead and stare, like seers at an eclipse,
At the riddle of the island tale and the twilight of the ships.
For these were simple men that loved with hands and feet and eyes,
Whose souls were humbled to the hills and narrowed to the skies,
The hundred little lands within one little land that lie,
Where Severn seeks the sunset isles or Sussex scales the sky.
And what is theirs, though banners blow on Warsaw risen again,
Or ancient laughter walks in gold through the vineyards of Lorraine,
Their dead are marked on English stones, their loves on English trees,
How little is the prize they win, how mean a coin for these—
How small a shrivelled laurel-leaf lies crumpled here and curled:
They died to save their country and they only saved the world.
G. K. Chesterton