CWGC Director General, Victoria Wallace, gives her personal response to recent comments about the behaviour of teenage visitors to Tyne Cot Cemetery & Memorial, Belgium.
Delving into our archives, she moves from considering the original design and intentions for the cemetery, to the challenges the CWGC faces in better engaging today’s visitors.
A very Happy New Year to you all.
My Twitter feed over Christmas picked up an interesting line of comment about the behaviour of teenage visitors to Tyne Cot, the CWGC’s largest cemetery near Ypres, and in particular, the inappropriateness of climbing the stepped Cross. Raising my head above the parapet, I confirmed it was my understanding that King George V had expressed his views that the German blockhouse be retained, rather than removed as planned, so it sits under the cross. I was asked then what the CWGC’s position was on people climbing on it. Far too long for 140 characters, I write this secure in the knowledge that whatever I say will not please all sides.
Despite reviewing the archives, we haven’t got a definitive answer as to whether the design was intended as a vantage point as a result of the King’s intervention; it isn’t out of the question, as other cemeteries clearly included steps to the cross (think Etaples, or Phaleron in Athens to name but two) – but equally, the “steps” at Tyne Cot are not hugely user-friendly (or safe.) Baker noted only in his autobiography that:
“I was told that the King, when he was there [in 1922], said that this blockhouse should remain. He expressed a natural sentiment, but in order to avoid the repellent sight of a mass of concrete in the midst of hallowed peace, which we wished to emphasize, a pyramid of stepped stone was built above it, leaving a small square of the concrete exposed in the stonework; and on this we inscribed in large bronze letters these words, suggested by Kipling, ‘This was the Tynecot Blockhouse.’ On the pyramid we set up on high the War Cross; thus from the higher ground at the back of the cemetery the cross can be seen against the historic battle-fields of the Salient, Ypres, and far and wide beyond”.
It must be safe to say our founding designers must have assumed the mound would be climbed, as they certainly did nothing to prevent that (and we have photos dating from 1926 taken from that viewpoint). Complaints have been made about people climbing the structure for decades – yet no barriers have ever been erected to prevent it.
Before going any further, I should declare my interests; firstly, my grandfather’s cousin is buried at Tyne Cot. So I am – just- qualified to comment about how relatives might feel in the face of such behaviour. Secondly, I have teenage children, who I have taken to Tyne Cot and to other places on the salient. I don’t think they climbed the cross – and I honestly cannot say whether I would have stopped them had they tried (except if it was wet, when it is slippery and dangerous.)
Let’s not forget that the visiting school groups come usually as year groups, and many kids would not by choice have come along, or be remotely interested. Even interested teenagers process things differently to adults. Their responses are not yet honed by years of social conditioning. They rarely consider the consequences of their actions, or the impact on others. They cluster in unwieldy groups – not exactly conducive to achieving Baker’s idea of “hallowed peace”! Wherever they are, they will take selfies and yack, and eat and drink, oblivious to the noise or impression they are creating – yet some may still go home profoundly affected by their trip. In school groups they are usually under the control of an adult. If they are offending others, they may need to be asked to behave differently. But I am always conscious that the very people we commemorate were little more than teenagers themselves. If our Tommies in 1915 had come across a cemetery or memorial to a Napoleonic battlefield somewhere, would they have chased kids off, and told them to show some respect? Or would they have climbed up to get a decent view of the battlefield themselves, just as they climbed the pyramids? I suspect the latter – at least, perhaps, until ordered down by an officer.
I have been asked in the past for a guide to cemetery etiquette - how to behave, where to walk, etc. The truth is there are no hard and fast rules. You can walk anywhere, step between headstones and over borders, sit and chat on benches. In some parts of the world, especially in busy conurbations, our cemeteries have almost become local parks, and at weekends and holidays are full of local people just enjoying their beauty, sitting around on the grass. Is that so wrong? There’s a school of thought which says visitors should be quiet and respectful – another which says what the heck – these lads died for freedom, and would love to know that their final resting place is alive, and full of children laughing and playing, or people relaxing with their loved ones.
I draw the line at any behaviour that is likely to disturb other peoples’ experience of the cemetery, which for many, is profoundly emotional. The CWGC staff maintain the sites, but don’t have a permanent presence at most. Our guys will stop people damaging the place, or endangering themselves or others, but can’t police every visitor. So yes, if the kids climbing the cross are being loud and disrespectful, disturbing or offending you, ask them –or better yet, their group leader – to be a little quieter. But it would be even better if you could try to engage them and share your knowledge and understanding. What we would really like to do is to convert every visitor, every tourist, into a true pilgrim – who came, saw, was moved to remember, and who will encourage others to do the same. So those of you who “get it” – who know the stories of the men who fell, and who can explain the context - can help us enormously by talking to those who perhaps don’t.
We won’t generate understanding by telling teenagers off, or making them feel unwelcome. That approach risks alienating a future generation of visitors, and their children. We at CWGC need to find better ways to engage all our visitors, to offer them the context and interest they need to be able to respond to what they are seeing, so that the next generation, who will never have a direct personal connection, understand the loss. We have to try to accommodate the views of all who come to our sites; those who come with military groups, who potentially offend the pacifists (and vice versa); those who come in triumphalist spirit, potentially offending the nationals of our former enemies; those who come out of interest, reluctantly as part of groups, and those who come to mourn. We are the guardians of the sites, and of the remains of those servicemen and women who fell, not moral arbiters. The long-term CWGC policy has been not to dictate or proscribe behaviour. I’m not about to change that.
So whether it was George V’s intention that the cross should be climbed, as a vantage point, or not, isn’t really the point. We can’t and won’t stop those who choose to sit on, or climb our structures where it is safe to do so. But we’d love your help in directing their smartphones to sites which tell the stories of the First World War, or their attention to the people we honour.
I’ll be posting an occasional blog throughout 2016. I’ll be delighted if it generates social media discussion, but hope we will all be constructive and civil. Next month I’ll be sharing with you some thinking we’ve been doing about our future strategy and how the CWGC will operate.
Victoria Wallace @DGCWGC
Taken from the CWGC’s new blog, January, 2016.