The centenary of Armistice Day has prompted me to think about the symbols we use to remember those who fought and died in the service of their country. I have waited in the hushed silence before a dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux with thousands of others and it is a memorable gathering. I prefer visiting these cemeteries without the huge crowd, sometimes with my husband or daughter, treading softly so as not to disturb the resting souls, reading the ages of those who did not return, experiencing the feelings of being a mother, daughter, sister, and wife of a military person. I don’t want to touch these stones fearing I would release a barrage of ghosts.
It is a sobering moment to walk along the lines of pale gravestones in the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries in France reading the names, standing back to look at the rows set in lawn with narrow flower beds, usually with a cross erected nearby and in the larger ones a Stone of Remembrance. I feel shivers threading through my body reacting to the pleas from those hoping not to be forgotten.
I am not religious and don’t practice a faith. My father, probably because he felt obliged, would drag my reluctant self and sisters, dressed in beautiful dresses and flower adorned hats, to Sunday morning mass and I can remember glaring at the image of Jesus hanging in pain and agony from the cross. Even as a child, I puzzled over why a faith which was supposed to inspire should choose a symbol of torture and pain. Surely there must be a better symbol for a faith?
Yet I am always moved by the dignity of the Cross of Sacrifice that stands in many War Grave cemeteries. I have found two crosses in Brisbane, one in the Toowong cemetery and the other in the Lutwyche cemetery. I started thinking about this cross with its simple design and the symbolism associated with it. After all a cross is simple isn’t it; two lines at right angles to each other. Not this cross. The warp and weft of history and design that entwine the Cross are like ultrafine silk sending me as a time traveller ballooning across the aeons to Ancient Greece whose builders used entasis, the Greek rule of optical correction. The Parthenon is best known for this but it is speculated that earlier civilizations knew the effect of entasis when building the ziggurats in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians when building the pyramids. It is a curious link as Australian troops have fought in these regions.
In 1918 Sir Reginald Blomfield designed the Cross of Sacrifice and used entasis, to ensure the size was pleasing to the eye. The short cross arm is one third that of the shaft which tapers from the octagonal base. Set into the cross is a bronze long sword, shaft down. It is based on the Latin cross, used by Christianity as a symbol of sacrifice. The sword is an emblem of military honour, and is associated with the concept of strength and liberty. The shaft is pointing down indicating the battle is over.
The two pieces of the cross are octagonal again providing links to many cultures in which the figure eight represented renewal and eternity. In early Persian gardens many fountains incorporated eight sides providing a link between the square earth and the round heaven as architecturally eight sides are required to link a dome representing Heaven to a square representing Earth. These shapes are often incorporated in church architecture both in the Christianity and Arabic world. I love these connections and think of them as those gossamer threads that are like the tiny money spider’s ballooning allow us to transcend cultures and religions.
In cemeteries where there are over 40 graves you may also see the Stone of Remembrance designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. He also used entasis to ensure the stone would be pleasing to look at from any aspect. Neither the vertical or horizontal sides of the stone (3.5m long and 1.5m high) are straight. If these curved lines were extended they would create a circle over 549 m (1800 feet) in diameter. The stone, similar to a plain altar, which was traditionally used for sacrifice, worship or prayer, is placed on three shallow steps with the words, ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’ inscribed on the long surface.
On Remembrance Day, my husband will lay a wreath at Brisbane’s Cenotaph above Anzac Square and touch gently upon another poignant connection derived through the ages from the ancient Greek word, kenotaphion, through the Latin word cenotaphium, to the French cénotaphe for empty tomb.
We owe it to the many millions who died and those who were injured to ensure theirs was no empty sacrifice.