Having originally announced that all inscriptions were to be subject to their “absolute power of rejection or acceptance”, the Commission then had to backtrack and reassure the public that it only intended to censor ones that were “plainly unsuitable”. What did they consider “plainly unsuitable?
They allowed Burns’,
Man’s inhumanity to man
makes countless thousands mourn
If this is victory, then
let God stop all wars
His Loving mother.
They also allowed
Was it in vain?
And can they really have been oblivious to the irony in,
Let brotherly love continue.
But they couldn’t allow,
His loving parents curse the Hun
In January 1922 the minutes record that the Vice-Chairman brought this inscription to the attention of the Commission at their monthly meeting, reporting that he had approached the parents to ask if they might modify it. They had sent back the following modification.
With every breath we draw
We curse the German more;
May the French and British paw
Keep the devils in their place
As the minutes inscrutably record, the Vice-Chairman “proposed to decline to engrave the inscription. The Commission agreed.”
The following month the Commission turned down,
Set out to save England.
Result: England permanently damned
He left our home to fight the Hun
Little did we think he would never return
And in July of the same year,
He died the just
For the unjust.
The following February the Vice-Chairman told the Commission that if they had no objection he proposed to allow,
Just for a scrap of paper.
The Commission agreed, after all these were the words the German Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg had dismissively used to describe Britain’s 1839 treaty with Belgium, hardly able to believe that Britain would stand by her obligation and go to war with Germany. The ‘Scrap of Paper’ appears on a recruiting poster and is also the title of a poem by Herbert Kaufman so the inscription is more of a quotation than an accusation.
Not all decisions depended simply on the Vice-Chairman’s say-so . In November 1923 the Commission considered,
I am here as a result of uncivilised nations
This provoked some discussion but was eventually accepted as the inscription for Private John Collin Goodall. The acceptance of this inscription could have had something to do with the fact that the Victory Medal, awarded to everyone who had served in a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918, including women who had served as nurses or in the auxiliary forces, carried the words on the reverse – ‘The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919.
However, the proposal by Private GT Jenkins’ parents that his inscription should read,
Against his will
A man to kill
was refused on the grounds that it might cause pain to other relatives visiting the cemetery.
So, it looks as though relatives were not allowed to call the enemy Huns, but even if they called them Germans they still weren’t allowed to insult them by referring to them as devils, or the unjust, although they could be referred to as uncivilised. Whether it was the use of the word damned or the sentiment that condemned that inscription is unclear but it’s probably the use of the word ‘kill’ that the Commission felt was offensive to other relatives in the last example. It is quite acceptable to die for your country but people don’t like to be reminded that you were also prepared to kill for it too.
There is more information on this subject on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s site