Anzac graves - tending the gardens of our fallen
By the time the battlefields of Belgium fell silent in 1918, the landscapes were unrecognisable. Instead of wheat and potatoes, the land offered up a crop of bodies – in the Ypres area alone, there were nearly 200,000.
Today, Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries are peaceful spots where the row on row of headstones are softened by colourful garden plantings.
In 1918, the Commission's founder Sir Fabian Ware brought together three eminent architects – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – to plan the cemeteries and memorials. Although renowned English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll was never formally employed, she worked with Sir Edwin.
Her border plan is still used wherever climate allows:
* 15-25cm mowing strip to protect the headstones;
* borders 45-60cm wide containing the headstone;
* roses planted every two to four headstones (one variety per border);
* a front plant for interest;
* dot plants between roses and headstones;
* a low plant in front of each headstone (preventing soil splash but not obscuring the inscription);
* bulbs planted either side of rose bushes to give early interest.
Because of the number of blooms they produce, only Floribunda roses are used and gardeners deadhead throughout summer to encourage repeat flowering.
Among the varieties chosen for their compact size, health and vigour is 'Remembrance', a red rose named for the Commission by Harkness Roses. White roses are not used because they don't stand out against the headstones.
"It's about not being confronted by a sea of headstones but there was no template for anything like this. Every detail we take for granted now had to be worked out," Peter Francis, the Commission's media officer, says of the 700-hectares of gardens the CWGC cares for.
"Because the architects couldn't agree, Sir Frederic Kenyon of the British Museum was brought in. He wrote War Graves. How The Cemeteries Abroad Will Be Designed in 1918 and that pamphlet is still our guiding light.
“He had a vision of a dignified place for the dead – and the living – with horticulture to soften the masonry. There are deliberately no paved paths as the overall effect should be of a garden, the sort that the people buried there might recognise from home. 'Nothing gloomy' were Sir Frederic's words."
Sir Fabian also enlisted Sir Arthur Hill, assistant director at Kew Gardens, who in March 1916 headed to the Somme in northern France on the first of several trips to survey local flora and advise the Commission on endemic plants.
"Sir Arthur believed that using local flora was key," Francis says. "Field poppies, cornflowers, chamomile – the locals planting the first cemeteries in western Europe could use what was available to them, saving money and knowing the plants wouldn't fail."
Sometimes, the plant choices subtly reflect a cemetery's burials – plants from Nepal in Gurkha cemeteries or maples to commemorate Canadians. The Ramparts cemetery in central Ypres, the resting place of several members of the Māori Battalion killed in 1917, includes New Zealand flax.
"It's an extra endeavour that people don't always notice but we like doing," Francis says. "Our gardens must help create a place conducive to remembrance as well as offer colour, texture, height variety and succession flowering, which can get challenging outside western Europe."
The desert cemeteries of El Alamein (Egypt) and Tobruk (Libya), for instance, don't have lawns and use drought-tolerant plants, including agaves, succulents and bougainvillaea.
The rocky Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey experiences snow in winter and temperatures exceeding 40°C in summer. The terrain means graves are marked by "pedestal" headstones set close to the ground, surrounded by lower-growing border plants.
"There is lawn in the Gallipoli cemetery," Peter says, "but we don't irrigate because water is such a scarce resource. So the lawn browns off as part of the natural cycle and re-greens when the rain arrives.
"Of our significant plants, the Lone Pine at Gallipoli is probably the most important. Unfortunately, it was damaged by fire 20 years ago and it's taken a huge amount of work to sustain it."
The Commission is in a unique position to chart climate change with regular reports flowing in from gardeners on six continents.
"In the Far East, for example, they're saying the wet season isn't as long and when it does rain it all comes all in one go, which has a devastating effect on plantings," Francis says. "The last northern summer was the driest on record in what had been the Western Front (Luxembourg, Belgium and France) and we lost one in three border plants – and when you measure your borders in kilometres, that's a significant loss."
Since World War 1 centenary events began in 2014, all the western Europe cemeteries have seen record numbers of visitors – 350,000 people a year at Tyne Cot alone.
"A couple of million pairs of feet creating wear and tear is a nice problem to have," Francis says. "A pristine cemetery with no visitors is not what we want."
The Commission finally finished its final World War 1 memorial in 1938… "and then we had to start all over again".
This story originally appeared in the NZ Gardner magazine. You can check out more of Sandra Simpson’s writing here.