May 14, 2007 / 1:52 AM / 12 years ago

More people visit war graves than ever

LONDON (Reuters) - More people now visit Commonwealth war graves around the world than at any time in the past 90 years and writer Julie Summers thinks she knows why.

The Highlander's regimental piper plays during the re-buriel of two Scottish soldiers killed in WWI, October 20, 2004. More people now visit Commonwealth war graves around the world than at any time in the past 90 years and writer Julie Summers thinks she knows why. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol PR/AA

The plea of “Lest We Forget” has not fallen on deaf ears even though few veterans now survive from the First World War.

Summers, author of a new book marking the 90th anniversary of the commission that tends 23,000 graveyards in 150 countries, said: “The further you move away from the two world wars, you would have expected them to decrease.”

In an interview to mark publication of “Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”, she attributed the greater visitor numbers to inspired teaching and the growing fascination people have about tracing their roots.

“Teachers are taking 11,12 and 13-year-olds to the Western Front and showing them cemeteries. That brings history alive. If you just look at statistics they are so utterly gruesome, it is impossible to comprehend them.”

“There is also a vast interest in family history. More and more people want to find out about their relatives.”

For Summers, the headstones that really hit home and reduced her to tears were simple inscriptions by grieving mothers.

— “Too far away to see your grave but not too far away to think of thee”

— “Oh for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still”

“My own son is 16. He could have fought in France. Those inscriptions brought me to my knees,” Summers said.

Summers’ grandfather was the model for the colonel portrayed by Alec Guinness in the film “The Bridge over the River Kwai” about Allied prisoners building a wartime bridge for the Japanese.

Hero of the graves commission story is Red Cross volunteer Fabian Ware who in World War One saw the need to record and look after temporary graves all over France.

With the help of everyone from architect Edward Lutyens to author Richard Kipling, he built the commission into a global empire of remembrance paying tribute to 1,700,000 million men and women from the Commonwealth who died in two world wars.

“He really was a visionary,” Summers said. “Equality was vital and that was a radical development. In the past officers had been buried and commemorated while the men serving under them would have been thrown into mass graves.”

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