In Flanders Fields: Cemeteries of the First World War

A groundbreaking new exhibition draws on collections around the world to tell the complex and emotionally charged story of the cemeteries of World War I, as Nicholas Saunders reports.


A landscape of the dead, a landscape for the living, is one way of describing the First World War cemeteries clustered around the city of Ypres in Belgian Flanders. The cost of the Great War was in so many ways beyond measure, but an idea of the number of human lives expended along the Western Front is given by these military cemeteries. The silent witnesses to conflict, they prompt us to remember with gratitude those who died ‘for evermore’ – to use a phrase from the King James Bible that is frequently inscribed on the memorials they contain. For years after the war, it seemed as if the dead here haunted the living, but today the living also haunt the dead – with tourism, scientific investigations, looting, urban and industrial development, and motorway-building.

The Stone of Remembrance  at Tyne Cot, the largest British cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, established in 1917 for the dead of the Ypres Salient on the Western Front. The monument was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and engraved with ‘Their name liveth for evermore’ – a phrase from the King James Bible. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

At first glance, it can appear that most of those who died were British or British Imperial troops, but this belies the role of politics. After the war – and after bodies had been located, registered, and reburied elsewhere through the Herculean efforts of the Graves Registration Units – the US authorities permitted repatriation of the bodies of its citizens (some 70% of America’s 100,000 dead were taken home), as did the Germans, Belgians, and French. Uniquely, the British refused to do so, leaving the country’s dead to lie with their comrades near the battle fronts on which they had served. The British dead were also buried in smaller cemeteries than the Germans and French: the largest German cemetery, for example, is Menen Wald, home to almost 48,000 soldiers, four times more than at Tyne Cot, the largest British cemetery.

Above: Three views of For Evermore: Cemeteries of the First World War, which runs until 18 February 2024 at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. Photos: In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

Yet what British cemeteries often lacked in sheer size, they made up for in number, in architectural design, and, for visitors, in the peaceful and reflective repose in an immaculately manicured garden landscape that is characteristic of today’s examples. Major-General Fabian Ware (1869-1949) was the founding head of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, or CWGC) from its beginnings in May 1917, and worked closely with some of the most renowned architects of the day, including Edwin Lutyens and Reginald Blomfield. What these men created was a very different mortuary landscape to those of their wartime allies and the Germans. The small size of many CWGC cemeteries means they are spread across the landscape of the old battle-zone and possess a sad but also pastoral atmosphere on a very human scale. Other nations tended to gather up their Western Front dead from their original smaller resting places and consolidate them into far fewer but much larger cemeteries, where the serried rows of endless gravestones can for some be overwhelmingly depressing.

Today, the CWGC cares for more than 1.7 million war graves in more than 150 countries, while the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) tends to 2.8 million war dead in 800 German cemeteries in 46 countries. The French war cemeteries are administered by the Sépultures de Guerre, and the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) looks after almost 125,000 graves in 24 cemeteries, including Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, the only American Great War burial ground in Belgium.

Australian troops walk along a duckboard track through the remains of Chateau Wood, during the Third Battle of Ypres (more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele), 29 October 1917. In a little over three months, the battle claimed 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Making sense of the vast (and hitherto scarcely imaginable) numbers of war dead and their diverse resting places is a new exhibition For Evermore: Cemeteries of the First World War, running until 18 February 2024 at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. The museum, known internationally for its high-profile exhibitions, conferences, and publications (both academic and popular), has scored another first. Despite the ubiquity of the First World War dead, the great number of cemeteries, and the international annual commemorations on Armistice Day, this is the first time the topic has been the subject of a full exhibition. Here, there are more than 200 objects on display – many of them unique and on public view for the first time – obtained from around 48 lenders, including international museums and other institutions, as well as private collectors. In keeping with the main theme, never before have so many original grave markers of various nationalities been collected in one place. For all of these reasons, this exhibition is a timely and significant event.

‘Their name liveth’

War cemeteries live several different lives at once: they are places of sad reflection, destinations of family pilgrimage, architectural phenomena, features of the post-war (and especially interwar) landscape, tourist attractions, and locations of archaeological, historical, and political and ideological importance. Given all this, it is strange to think that this is the first exhibition to deal with such complex Great War issues.

As such, the curators were confronted with a significant challenge but also a great opportunity – to set the agenda by asking questions and offering insights into difficult issues concerning the development and character of this mortuary landscape of West Flanders, with its ten Belgian, four German, two French, one American, and more than 183 British cemeteries.

‘ID tags’ such as these have enabled the bodies of soldiers on both sides to be identified. Among those on display at the exhibition are British, German, Belgian, French, and American examples. Photo: In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

To help the story unfold, the exhibition includes a model of the small and little-known Grootebeek British Cemetery, with its 111 graves, memorial bridge, and fringe of pollarded willows. Its location is unusual, situated next to the Grootebeek stream (hence its name), and with most of its occupants having died of wounds behind the lines. As with all CWGC cemeteries, Grootebeek has a cabinet for a register and visitors’ book, while, as with other Commonwealth war cemeteries containing 40 or more graves, there is also a Cross of Sacrifice (the Stone of Remembrance, designed by Lutyens and engraved with ‘their name liveth for evermore’, is usually reserved for cemeteries with more than 1,000 graves).

Bringing this landscape into the museum, the organisers have chosen their exhibits with care and precision. A sense of what they have achieved is given by the startling juxtaposition of objects and their archaeological and historical stories. A few examples must stand for many, each amply repaying the visitor’s time and attention. In 2011, a few miles from Ypres, an archaeological excavation discovered objects at a disused German cemetery at Beselare, including a pocket watch, pencils, a wine bottle, penknives, and a fine-tooth comb for lice. The display case also shows a photograph of the original wooden grave marker, and the later concrete headstone, named for Jakob Grau, a German NCO of the Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment 246, who died of injuries in 1915. The cemetery was cleared in 1955 and his remains transferred to the German Soldatenfriedhof cemetery in Menen, where he shares a communal grave marker.

In this way, modern scientific archaeology is revealed as a comparatively recent addition to the tools which investigators now bring to the study of cemeteries, battlefields, and war. There have been many examples over the past two decades where archaeology and forensic anthropology have added critical insight and information to what would once have been considered a difficult if not almost impossible task – identifying the dead not by their possessions, but through DNA analysis.

At Ploegsteert on the French–Belgian frontier, I was part of a team that found a soldier’s remains in 2008, which archive and DNA studies subsequently identified as Private Alan Mather from New South Wales in Australia; he was later reburied at the nearby Prowse Point CWGC cemetery on 22 July 2010. Arguably more dramatic, due to the numbers involved, was the 2009 archaeological discovery in a field near Fromelles in northern France of 250 (mainly Australian) soldiers in several mass graves. They had died in the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916, and were rapidly buried afterwards by the Germans.

Eye-witness accounts tell how ‘Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid… Sheaves and streams of bullets swept like whirling knives.’ Archaeologists retrieved some 6,200 artefacts alongside the bodies, and these, together with meticulous archival research and DNA analyses, allowed for identification before eventual reburial at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, which was opened on 19 July 2010, the first new CWGC cemetery built in 50 years.

Other objects on display tell different stories of the war and its cemeteries. A portrait of British pilot Henry Leslie Marvin relates how on 26 October 1917 he and his observer Clarence Harry Barber were shot down between Zillebeke and Geluveld, and were buried alongside their crashed aeroplane. Their field grave was rediscovered in 1920, and they were reburied alongside each other at the British war cemetery of Zandvoorde; of the cemetery’s 1,583 graves, 1,135 are registered as ‘Unknown’, as most were buried by the Germans and their identities lost.

birger stichelbaut The funeral of John Lambert from Newfoundland, Canada, who died in August 1917 near Ypres. His body was found in 2016 by archaeologists, and his remains were identified thanks to DNA research. He was recently given a grave at New Irish Farm Cemetery, near Ypres, in the presence of his family. Photo: In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

Difficult questions

It sometimes seems as if all the world’s nations fought in Flanders. From Asia came the Chinese Labour Corps and also Indian soldiers – the former as non-combatants, the latter as brave fighting men – each with their own distinctive grave markers. Religion, too, played its part for Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims.

There is even a Danish dimension, as 6,000 soldiers from south Jutland died during the war while serving in the German army. South Jutland had been captured by Prussia in 1864, and these men were fighting to have their homeland returned (achieved finally by a 1920 referendum) as well as for a German victory. Graves and memorials to Danish casualties were inscribed with suitably patriotic symbols. One of these memorials was to 30-year-old graphic designer Mikael Steffensen, who died at Geluveld and was buried on 28 November 1917 at Geluwe, only to be exhumed four months later and repatriated to his hometown cemetery at Hammelev.

The exhibition itself has a role to play in some of the slippery questions it raises: who are cemeteries for, and how do they work? And to what extent are museum displays like this one part of that relationship? The presence of so many grave markers here turns the museum into a special place of remembrance, sharing this aspect with the cemeteries that surround Ypres. If the grave markers are in some sense standing in for the bodies they originally commemorated, then symbolically speaking the memorial landscape has invaded the museum and vice versa.

In the end, of course, cemeteries are for the living, once the dead have been buried – a fact that was only confirmed by the emotional battlefield pilgrimages and tours of the interwar period. Capitalising on this phenomenon, an industry arose of guidebooks, travel associations, transportation, and accommodation, and in the making and selling of souvenirs, some of which were locally crafted trench-art items made from the recycled debris of war. Such objects were in some ways mantelpiece substitutes for the bodies of men either never found or forever consigned to rest in foreign soil.

During these interwar years, the dead were remembered on monuments as well as in cemeteries, ‘made present’ by their absence, and often by anonymity rather than by naming, as in the gravestone inscription ‘Known unto God’. This was a landscape of intense sorrow and pain, of pilgrimage for the bereaved who had no bodies to grieve over, only the landscape itself to bear witness. They sometimes carried with them such portable commemorations as photographs, letters, and perhaps souvenirs sent home from the front – treasured items of the living that had become memento mori the moment a soldier’s death notice arrived.

What this exhibition clearly shows is that, over time, the dead and their cemeteries rarely stayed the same: there was much upset, movement, refurbishment, abandonment, consolidation, and enlargement (and occasionally new cemeteries were established) – here on the Western Front, but also on the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Walking through the exhibition, it becomes increasingly evident that the dead often appear as restless as the living.

There is a sting in the tail, because a study of cemeteries cannot help but give an incomplete picture. Countless bodies (and body parts) stayed behind on the battlefield and became ‘the missing’ – some of whom make a dramatic reappearance nowadays when discovered by archaeologists or construction teams. The western corner of Flanders still conceals the remains of some 55,500 missing British soldiers. Many tens of thousands of their German, French, and Belgian counterparts likewise stayed behind. It is a bittersweet and ongoing story, as over the past 25 years, more than 740 bodies have been found and ceremonially reburied.

The German war cemetery at Langemark, near Ypres, where the remains of more than 44,000 soldiers are buried. Between the wars, Langemark became the focus of a Great War myth of patriotism for the German state, so much so that it was referred to as the birthplace of National Socialism. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

An evolving memorial

More than a century after the war, the cemeteries are still growing, as can be seen in the exhibition’s photograph of a reburial at the cemetery of Saint-Charles de Potyze on the outskirts of Ypres. In another film, the television producer Arnout Hauben relates the story of John Lambert from Newfoundland, Canada, who died in August 1917 near Ypres. His body lay where he fell for 99 years, until archaeologists found it in 2016. Again, DNA research was able to identify his remains. He was recently given an official new grave at the New Irish Farm Cemetery, near Ypres, in the presence of his family.

Equally dramatic, in a different way, is the case of the German cemetery at nearby Langemark, which by November 1918 had 850 buried, but more than a century later has 44,000 (of whom 25,000 are in a mass grave). Most of these were brought to the cemetery, which consolidated graves from smaller outlying field cemeteries. Between the wars, Langemark became the focus of a Great War myth of patriotism for the German state, so much so that it was referred to as the birthplace of National Socialism. Langemark demonstrates a universal lesson in that once something is made and exists in the world, its makers lose control of its original meanings, and it becomes openly available for any new significances that others might bestow on it.

Among the items on display is the ‘unofficial uniform’ worn by Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardener Allan Ingram, a Briton who lived in Ypres, and who worked at Bedford House Cemetery, among others. Photo: In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

The exhibition skilfully weaves film into the narrative, including footage shot while flying over West Flanders, with the different designs and shapes of cemeteries clearly visible below, including even the traces of those burial places that had ‘disappeared’. This bird’s-eye view of the land was another innovation of the Great War, allowing for a new perspective on fighting and killing. Here, a post-war film reveals an equally new view of the resulting dead and their resting places.

Another film, by Clemens De Landtsheer (1894-1984), documents the intertwining strands of burying the war dead and ‘enlisting’ them for a political purpose. The film shows the exhumation of Belgian soldiers from three small wartime cemeteries and their grand reinterment as ‘symbolic Yser heroes’ in the crypt of the Yser Tower (Iron Tower), a peace monument near the city of Diksmuide, during the annual memorial pilgrimage of 21 August 1932. The message was overt: these eight soldiers represented the fight of idealistic Flanders against Belgium, with each individual standing for a sacred virtue after sacrificing his blood for national salvation.

A set of stonemason’s tools from the 1920s, used during the making of the cemeteries. Photo: In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

The exhibition organisers also deploy animation, here showing how Bedford House Cemetery (at the former Château Rosendael in Zillebeke, near Ypres) came into being and was developed. From 1921 to 1947, more than 4,300 British war dead were reburied here. A valuable insight is provided by the design of the animation, which shows the evolution of the cemetery on the left-hand side, while on the right can be seen the places where the dead were originally buried or found during battlefield-clearance – tracking the movement of the dead across the memorial landscape.

For Evermore is an ambitious and emotive exhibition, skilfully drawing together objects, photographs, memories, film, people, and places to tell the interlocking stories of these momentous events – the war itself, the logistically formidable challenge of what to do with the dead, and the emotional trauma of organising heartbreaking battlefield pilgrimages and tours, enabling the bereaved to keep faith with their loved ones in death.

Today, the countryside around Ypres presents an often-pastoral scene, but beneath the rich soil are millions of small and often microscopic fragments of the dead from the multinational armies that fought and died here in the Great War. The unadorned landscape is itself a cemetery, and journeys to it challenge us with powerful moral questions and enduring memories.

Professor Nicholas J Saunders is a leading modern conflict archaeologist and material-culture anthropologist at the University of Bristol. His book The Poppy: a History of Conflict, Loss, Remembrance & Redemption explores the rich symbolism of the Remembrance Day poppy.

Further Information:
•For Evermore: Cemeteries of the  First World War continues at the  In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, until 18 February 2024.  See for  more information. 
•For details of this year’s Royal British Legion poppy appeal, see