November 8th 2018

The Gardeners’ Company Harvest Festival this year was held at the Church of St Vedas alias Foster in the City. The Principal speaker at the event was Lt General Sir William Rollo KCB, CBE, Commissioner of the War Graves Commission. This the text of his address:

You may be asking yourself why, at a service celebrating the gathering in of the Harvest, you should be listening to a retired general from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I’ll try to answer that question but I’d like to start by thanking the Master - and you - for the opportunity to speak today, and to say a little about an institution which is now very firmly established, but which at the start of its life was controversial and in many ways revolutionary.

There is a link to gardening, perhaps even to the Harvest Festival, and certainly to 2018, but I’d like to let it come out as I go along, and you can judge at the end whether it is sufficient.I’ll talk briefly about the foundations of the Commission and the role horticulture played in this, before looking at our tasks today, and the way horticulture continues to be at the centre of our concerns.


The Commission does what it says on the tin. It looks after the mortal remains of the Commonwealth war dead in two world wars. Its Royal Charter requires it to create and maintain cemeteries and to maintain an archive so that relatives can find their loved ones.

Nothing much revolutionary about that.And yet a 100 years ago it was. Britain had never fought a war like this before, and mercifully, never had to deal with the scale of casualties continued for so long. Battles on the whole were fought by professionals separated by class, time and distance from British society.

If you were killed in battle before 1914 you went into a pit unless you were exceptionally wealthy or distinguished. As Thomas Hardy wrote only a few years before:

They threw in Drummer Hodge, to rest

uncoffined, just as found,

his landmark is a kopje crest

that breaks the veldt around.

This war was different. You could hear it, if you lived in South East England, and you could see it, in the trains of wounded coming into London and then spreading out across the country to the big municipal hospitals. It affected everyone, from all classes, in what was now a democracy, and everyone cared.

It was no longer acceptable for people to go into unmarked graves, and an organisation grew up during the war to organise cemeteries and to record where people were buried. Over three dreadful years it grew until it was formally established in 1917 as the then Imperial War Graves Commission.

At the end of the war it commissioned a policy paper - the Kenyon Report. Its driving principle was that equality of sacrifice should result in equality of treatment and that each individual would be recognised in the same way.

Individual headstones would record their name, rank number and regiment, with a limited number of inscriptions which a family could add. If your body could not be found your name would be on a memorial such as those in Ypres or Thiepval on the Somme, Helles at Gallipoli or Basra in Iraq, so that a grieving relative could say - ‘He is not missing, he is here’. If you doubt that sense, go to the Menin Gate where the Ypres firemen still play the Last Post every night.

Nevertheless, the report resulted in a debate in Parliament. It was criticised as authoritarian (why should people not retrieve the remains of their relatives to be buried in their own churchyards), as unchristian (surely Christians should be buried under crosses), as socialist (why should the headstones be the same size).

The answers, which were in the end accepted, were that repatriation was both impractical and unfair (only the wealthy could afford it), that stones gave more room for information, particularly on regiments, the organisations in which people fought and died, and, fundamentally, that equality of sacrifice should be reflected in equality of memorial. In the end the House never divided and the policy was executed, with the results which you see around the world today.

The task today

Before moving on to horticulture it may be worth reflecting for a minute on the nature and scope of the task today, though it is easy to drown in the statistics. The Commission’s core task is to look after 1.7 million memorials in 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories.

Just under half are in France and Belgium, with significant numbers in Germany, Italy, Turkey, across the Middle East, Southern Africa and in Burma and Malaysia. 300,000 are in Britain, some in large municipal cemeteries adjacent to the hospitals I mentioned, others scattered in individual churchyards, many with private memorials, when people died at home, but where the commission retains an ultimate responsibility to see that their remains are properly cared for - sometimes extraordinarily difficult and complex to fulfil.

But behind every name there is an individual, with a story, long or short, and a family.

The role of Horticulture and Links to Kew and Jekyll

The role of horticulture was recognised from the first. Families wrote to ask for flowers to be placed on relatives' graves. More formally, the Assistant Director of Kew - Arthur Hill - was first contacted as early as February 1915 to advise on planting, and he made at least five trips to France over the next three years, becoming the Commission’s first Botanical Adviser.

Other designers played a part. Lutyens was one of the three principal architects involved after the war and it was therefore natural for Gertrude Jekyll to produce a number of designs, though we now believe that these were never put fully into effect.

Cemetery design was described as in many ways akin to landscape gardening. Kenyon wrote that ‘There was no reason why cemeteries should be places of gloom but the restfulness of grass and the brightness of flowers in fitting combination would strike the proper note of brightness and life’.

Over time our planting schemes have evolved to suit different climates and to reflect where we can the origins of those buried within. Amongst others there are oaks from South Africa around the South African Memorial at Delville Wood, conifers from Canada around the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamel, and Maples at Dieppe, and plants from India, Australia and New Zealand in Yokohama.

That said, the distinguishing characteristic of the vast majority remains the explicit design to recreate an English garden on foreign soil, and to provide comfort thereby.

Current Horticultural Issues

Horticultural issues remain prominent today: choosing the right shrubs and flowers to achieve the desired effect remains a dynamic issue. Each headstone border is planted with a mixture of floribunda roses and herbaceous perennials. Low-growing plants are chosen for areas immediately in front of headstones, ensuring that inscriptions are not obscured and preventing soil from splashing back during rain.

While we aim for consistency, the choice of plants necessary to achieve variety in texture, height and timing of floral display will vary across the globe.Many of the trees planted 100 years ago are dying back today, whether from age or disease, with decisions required on how and when to replace them - from icons such as the lone pines on Gallipoli to pollarding beeches at Essex Farm on the edge of Ypres. In revising planting we are much more conscious now of the broader geographical and historical context within which our cemeteries exist.

Sometimes it makes sense to open up views. At others we now need to protect a cemetery’s sense of tranquillity in what has become a built-up area by planting around its perimeter. More fundamentally both the potential bans on the use of herbicides and pesticides and climate change may require significant change to the way we maintain our cemeteries.

Like most commercial growers, the Commission has saved the public purse of our six member nations substantial sums over the last three decades with the use of agrochemicals in Europe. Where labour costs are lower, in Africa and Asia, we use almost no chemicals at all. Our challenge over the next few years, as the possible danger from herbicides and pesticides achieves greater public traction, will be to see how we can maintain the standards for which we are known – weed free turf and borders, thriving roses and clean white headstones – with manpower and elbow grease alone.

Our government funders have been generous, but are unlikely to increase our budget substantially, so we have to be smarter, finding environmentally acceptable alternatives, or redefining subtly what good looks like.

On climate change, without even entering the debate on causation, as a practical matter an increasing number of our cemeteries have too much water or too little. On the one hand the King Tom Cemetery on the coast in Sierra Leone has been flooded twice in recent years (and this is not just a coastal issue - similar issues have arisen in Belgium). On the other we have been considering how to minimise our use of water by looking at alternatives to irrigation and the use of drought resistant flowers and shrubs in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

There are some fine lines here - an oasis of green may be welcome to both visitors and locals. Or it could be seen as wasteful and inappropriate when water is scarce and expensive.

Whatever we do, change has to be gradual – as much for our visitors as for the planting schemes.In all of this the constant is to recognise what makes the Commission’s cemeteries special - a sense of history, physical beauty, great gardening, but behind them all the devotion and care taken by the Commission's staff.

When the Commission began the idea was that men would be looked after by their former comrades, and a community grew up in France and Belgium to do just that. What is remarkable today is that the same sense of pride and commitment can be found across the world with both our headquarters and our locally engaged staff, and that this is instantly apparent to those who visit.

Establishing a practical linkage between our two organisations

I hope by now that I will have established some of the linkages which I mentioned at the start of my talk. That there is a natural commonality of interest between the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, which aims to support the art and practise of good gardening, and an institution which employs 900 gardeners around the world to provide cemeteries which are places of beauty, peace and reflection.

That 2018, 100 years after the end of the first of the two world wars, and the start of the huge effort to establish those cemeteries, is a reasonable point at which to examine what that relationship should be. And therefore, in this particular year, that in a service to give thanks to God for his natural bounty, we should also spare a moment to thank Him for the sacrifice of our forebears which allows us the freedom to enjoy it.