The Ancient
Society of
Est. 1637

Visit to World War I Graves

(Report and photographs by Sue Meyer)

The whole group at Tyne Cot cemetery.

Bells rang out across the former battle grounds of Belgium and France, as members of the Ancient Society of College Youths paid tribute to members who gave their lives in the Great War. And the trip, organised to mark 100 years since the outbreak of war, also provided the opportunity for a poignant and rather unusual reunion. 26 CYs, friends and family, including 10 past masters, made the commemorative trip to visit the graves and memorials, ring handbells and say a few words of remembrance at each site, and to lay a wreath on behalf of the society at the Menin Gate. Steward of the Central Council's Rolls of Honour, Alan Regin, guided the group around the cemeteries, talking about the ringing history of the fallen College Youths, and explaining a little about the battles in which they lost their lives. He also pointed out the memorials of other ringers killed in action and several graves of individuals – decorated for their bravery; killed at 15 after lying about their age to sign up; and those killed after the declaration of peace – trying to clear unexploded mines.

Huge memorials at Thiepval and Vimy vied for impact against the simply incomprehensible number of orderly white uniform headstones viewed over the 2 days. The whole countryside was dotted with gleaming white cemeteries: some small, on undisturbed battle burial sites just retrospectively marked with the regimented headstones and crosses; others spreading row upon row into the distance with all the dead of the area brought together. Each was marked by a large white cross, well cut lawns and flower beds and had a full roll of honour for all the service men remembered there.

The Master and Trustees going up to lay the wreath at Menin Gate.

But the most unusual visit was to Sailly-Saillisel and the grave of Rifleman Bertram Prewett, CY and Middlesex Association ringer known for his prolific peal ringing and love of Stedman. Kept safely over the years by his widow Ida, his two peal books – now in Alan Regin's care – were laid on his grave as Kath Firman, Paul Mounsey, David Brown, Graham Firman and Chris Rogers rang a course of Stedman Caters.

For many the highlight of the trip, which had started with a peal of 8 spliced at St Mary's, Dover, on the Friday morning, was the ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. A full remembrance service is conducted there every evening, with buglers from the local fire service and representatives from organisations, councils and families world-wide being able to attend and lay wreaths.

Hundreds of people crowded under and around the gate & over the route which so many servicemen had taken into battle – while College Youths' Master Simon Meyer, accompanied by trustees Paul Mounsey and Chris Rogers, took their turn in the procession to present their tribute.

The gate is a memorial to over 54,000 men and officers who died in the Ypres area, but whose grave site is unknown. As more battlefield graves are found and the ‘missing’ identified, their names are removed from the relevant memorial and their remains reburied with one of the signature suitably-badged headstones, alongside those of ‘unknown soldier’ which feature so heavily at the cemetery sites. Some have no detail, some simply a date of death, some identify which regiment the soldier belonged to. Others, identified, have additional personal inscriptions at the foot from their families. All are immaculately cared for.

“The bells rang out that peace had come. I heard them from another place upon another shore.”

  • Alan Regin with Bertram Prewett's peal books at his grave.

  • Ringing a course of Stedman at Bertram Prewett's grave.

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