Words of remembrance
The multi-award winning International Bomber Command Centre has been closed to visitors during the coronavirus lockdown period. Nevertheless, the job of documenting the stories of the airmen and women who lost their lives during WWII has continued uninterrupted. In this article Dave Gilbert, the project’s Losses Archivist, describes the Epitaphs Project, which has helped to maintain audience engagement and lift the spirits of a team of volunteers during this difficult period.
I was inspired to begin the Epitaphs Project by one particular gravestone inscription: that of Sgt William McDonald of 50 Squadron, who was tragically killed by machine gun fire from the ground on 25th October 1942 when his Lancaster was flying at treetop height to avoid flak during an attack on Milan. The remainder of the crew were mercifully uninjured and were able to nurse their damaged aircraft back to England where Bill sadly died in hospital a few hours later. I became aware of his epitaph while carrying out research for my forthcoming book. It is taken from his last letter home and reads: ‘Mother, I’ve weighed the risks, which I prefer to living in a world dominated by Nazis. Bill’.
I was so moved by this epitaph that I looked out for similar ones and was overwhelmed to find that almost 30,000 of the Bomber Command headstones have an inscription, and how varied and poignant they are. I realised immediately what a wonderfully rich addition they would be to our Losses Database, which was used to create the memorial walls surrounding the Spire that dominates the southern vista of Lincoln city.
It was always my intention to use crowd-sourcing to gather them together, although I planned on beginning the project in autumn as a ‘dark nights’ project. When the coronavirus pandemic struck and most people were confined to their homes, it was clear that the project should be brought forward – not only to allow it to come to fruition sooner but also to maintain public engagement while IBCC remained closed and to give people something rewarding to occupy themselves with during this difficult period. As is invariably the case where IBCC is concerned, the public rose to the challenge admirably and 40 volunteers came forward and together spent more than 500 hours recording the epitaphs.
Having already spotted that many of the epitaphs are quotes from poems, hymns and other literary works, I asked the volunteers to offer some interpretation for as many as they were able. As expected, many are not in English and so began the extra task of recruiting volunteer translators for 11 languages, no easy feat when one considers that many were in little-used languages such as Latin.
I also asked the volunteers to highlight the ones they found most moving. That there were so many should be no surprise; it was the last deed that their families could grant to their beloved son or daughter, so little wonder that a great deal of thought went into them.
What has surprised us all is just what variety is to be found. What follows is just a flavour of the huge depth and breadth of epitaphs we have researched. There is much yet to be done; with 30,000 epitaphs to look through and categorise there will inevitably be some particularly touching ones we are yet to find.
In their time of grief, families often turned to literature for solace and that has naturally spilled over into many of the epitaphs. Everything from Horace (in Latin) to Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Dr Seuss makes an appearance, as these few examples show:
TO THE WORLD YOU WERE JUST ONE, TO US, ALL THE WORLD
Surprisingly, an adaptation of a quote from Dr Seuss, which appears on no fewer than 80 headstones.
ALL YOU HAD HOPED FOR, ALL YOU HAD, YOU GAVE. LOVINGLY AND PROUDLY REMEMBERED
From ‘O Valiant Hearts’ by John Stanhope Arkwright.
(580435 Sgt Cecil Colbourn)
ONE CROWDED HOUR OF GLORIOUS LIFE IS WORTH AN AGE WITHOUT A NAME R.I.P.
From the poem ‘The Call’, written by Major Thomas Osbert Mordaunt during the Seven Years’ War, although it is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Sir Walter Scott.
(1183439 Sgt Bernard Willmer)
OUT OF THIS NETTLE, DANGER, WE PLUCK THIS FLOWER, SAFETY
Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, Act 2, Scene 3.
(424212 F/O Geoffrey Pinn, RCAF)
SUNWARD HE CLIMBED AND SLIPPED THE SURLY BONDS OF EARTH
Adapted from ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee Jr, who died, aged 19, in December 1941.
(1257889 Sgt Peter Maxwell)
NON NOBIS SOLUM SED TOTI MUNDO NATI
Not for ourselves but for the whole world born.
(913313 Sgt Henry Johnston)
DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI
It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s homeland.
Horace, Odes 3:2:13 and also the title of the poem of the same name which refers to the quotation as ‘that same old lie’ by Wilfred Owen. Features on 15 epitaphs.
FORTI NIHIL DIFFICILE
To the determined, nothing is difficult.
(436323 F/L Bernard Williams, RAAF)
Although many Latin inscriptions were expected, I had not expected that there would be a category within them – that of school mottoes. This provided a fascinating insight into the servicemen’s early life and led to some wonderful exchanges of information with various schools:
PAULATIM ERGO CERTE ‘SUNSET AND EVENING STAR AND ONE CLEAR CALL FOR ME’
Slowly therefore surely – the motto of Latymer Upper School. The section in English is from the poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Lincolnshire poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, later set to music as a hymn. Latymer School lost an incredible 26 of its alumni to Bomber Command.
(1281206 Sgt Joseph Medhurst)
OF WITHAM, ESSEX ‘GARDE TA FOY’
Although at first sight this appears to be Latin it is in fact Old French: Keep Your Faith. This is widely known to be the motto of Magdalene College, Cambridge and my first thoughts were that it was Henry’s alma mater but after some enquiries to the college’s alumni officer, I quickly drew a blank, although she kindly suggested that Felsted School used the same motto. A casual glance at the map confirmed that Henry’s family home was a matter of a few miles from this highly regarded school.
(40216 F/O Henry Evitt)
Aside from Latin, modern languages as diverse as Welsh, Danish and Russian can be found among the headstones:
KAEMP FOR ALT, HVAD DU HAR KAERT, DO, OM SAA DET GAELDER!
From a Danish hymn often used at funerals – Live and die for what you love! Cherish and defend it!
(128521 F/O Arne Helvard)
IL VECUT CE QUE VIVENT LES ROSES, L’ESPACE D’UN MATIN
French: He lived as long as roses live, the span of a morning from a poem by the 16th century French poet François de Malherbe.
(1198786 Sgt René Partington)
GEROEM ZAGINUV U BOYU ZA CANADU I ZA SIMEISTVU SVOYU. TSARSTVO YOMU NEBESNE
Russian: He died heroically in the battle for Canada and for his family. The Kingdom of Heaven is his.
(J/90310 P/O Nicholas Novack, RCAF, born in Canada of Russian parents.)
I was puzzled to find that some of the airmen with headstones in foreign languages seemed to have no connection to that language but eventually realised that they were in the language of the country they are buried in, specifically so that they can be read by the local population.
BELOVED SON OF J&A COATES, ROSSENDALE, LANCS, ENGLAND ‘HIJ STIERF OPDAT GIJ VRIJ ZOUDT ZIJN’
Dutch: He died so you could be free. Buried in Bergen-op-Zoom Cemetery, Netherlands.
(644895 Sgt Jack Coates)
Pilots who perished to save their crew
The old adage that the Captain goes down with his ship applies as much to aircraft as to ships and contrary to popular belief, the rear gunner was not the most likely airman to die.
In fact, the pilots’ chances were worst simply because they would invariably stay at the controls to keep the aircraft straight and level to allow the rest of the crew to make their escape, by which time it was too late to save themselves.
IN PROUD & CONSTANT MEMORY OF A GALLANT ENGLISHMAN WHO GAVE HIS LIFE TO SAVE HIS CREW
(29198 W/C Roy Arnold)
WE ALL THANK YOU TONY, YOUR WIFE IRENE AND PARENTS. ‘A GOOD FRIEND AND A GRAND CAPTAIN’. YOUR CREW
(966815 W/O Donald Gee, 28 OTU)
REFERENCES TO FALLEN SIBLINGS
Among the most distressing epitaphs I discovered were ones where the family had lost several sons. It is hard to imagine what the parents of these families must have gone through.
TO HIS GLORIOUS MEMORY. AT REST WITH HIS THREE BROTHERS. ‘THY WILL BE DONE’
(40105 F/O Donald Garland, RAAF)
WITH HIS BROTHERS LEONARD AND GORDON, WHO ALSO DIED FOR THEIR COUNTRY
(934086 Sgt Lionel Perry)
REFERENCES TO CHILDREN
It is often thought that the majority of airmen were single but in fact at least 12,000 of the losses on the memorial walls were married and no doubt many had children.
ALSO HIS WIFE LILIAN, CHILDREN BRIAN AND NOVA, KILLED BY ENEMY ACTION. THEY LIVE WITH US IN MEMORY STILL.
(1446712 AC2 Royal Potter – killed in an air raid while on leave along with his family.)
‘RESTING WHERE NO SHADOWS FALL’ EVER REMEMBERED BY WIFE AND FOUR LITTLE ONES
(755649 Sgt Thomas Walker)
GONE, BUT NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN BY YOUR LOVING WIFE AND THREE LITTLE SONS
(1894705 Sgt Leslie Gower)
ALSO BABY SON THOMAS FRANCIS BORN AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH. DIED AGE SEVEN MONTHS. ‘UNSEEN THEY’RE NEAR ME’
(655460 W/O Thomas Heyes)
GOODBYE, DADDY. MICHAEL AND GEORGINA
(75471 S/L George Alexander)
I was equally surprised to find a few mildly humorous ones, all belonging to Australian airmen:
NICE GOING MICHAEL! FAMILY AND FRIENDS PROUD. GOOD LUCK NOW MATE
(426507 F/S Louis Baker, RAAF)
A GREAT SURFMAN FROM BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA’S EASTERLY POINT
(405576 F/S John Dening, RAAF)
A GREAT INNINGS, PAL
(423710 Sgt Jack Frazer, RAAF)
As well as Bill McDonald’s chilling epitaph described earlier, several others were found based upon last letters home:
DON’T WORRY: I AM ALRIGHT
(926082 Sgt Frank Wood)
NOW I AM DEAD, BUT LIVE, LIVE IN YOUR LIFE AND LOVE. J.F.B.
(1395372 Sgt John Burton)
FROM THE HEART
And finally, some of the most moving ones are not from great works but are simply words from the heart, and are every bit as powerful:
INTO THE MOSAIC OF VICTORY WAS LAID THIS PRECIOUS PIECE
WILL SOME KIND HAND PLACE A FLOWER HERE FOR US? REMEMBERED BY FATHER & MOTHER. R.I.P.
(1045568 Sgt George Finlay)
ALL HE HAD HOPED FOR, ALL HE HAD, HE GAVE TO SAVE MANKIND, HIMSELF HE SCORNED TO SAVE
(1401047 Sgt John Stevens)
HERE PAT SLEEPS NEAR HIS CREW OF FOUR IN HIS LITTLE BIT OF TEXAS FOR EVERMORE
(R/97834 F/S Pat Templeton, RCAF. An American who enlisted in Canada whilst the United States was still neutral.)
BUT THE APPLE PETALS, WHEN THEY FELL, WERE WHITE
(103534 P/O Anthony Scott-Martin)
TO YOU WHO ARE LEFT BEHIND IS A TASK… CREATE A NEW ORDER SO ALL MAY LIVE IN PEACE
(R/72335 F/S Reginald Robb, RCAF)
SO IMPATIENT, FULL OF ACTION, FULL OF MANLY PRIDE AND FRIENDSHIP
(934409 Sgt Eric Dixon)
A PAGE IN MY BOOK OF MEMORIES IS GENTLY TURNED TODAY. NORMAN JR
(R/54831 F/S Ernest Jefferies, RCAF)
TEARS IN MY EYES EVER GLISTEN; MY HEART IS ALWAYS SAD FOR THE HUBBY I LOVED – LORNA
(1271552 Sgt Edwin Carter)
I hope you have found this small collection of inscriptions as moving as I have. I truly believe that the 58,000 men and women lost to Bomber Command were the cream of their generation and that their loss was a bitter blow not only to their families but also to subsequent generations.