The Centenary of the First World War has provided fresh opportunities for us to discover more about the experiences of the men and women who lived through the war, or who died because of it. This study of the graves in Beckett Street Cemetery reveals not only some of the losses suffered by many families during the war, but also the diverse ways in which the conflict touched people’s lives. Some of these stones bear witness to deaths in combat, recording men who died from wounds or illnesses contracted during their war service, but who survived long enough to die in British hospitals or at home rather than at the front. Not all war deaths were due to combat though: the Cemetery also includes the grave of a young Belgian woman, who died in Leeds as a teenage refugee having fled from her home, as did over 200,000 Belgians during the 1914 invasion.
The decision of the British authorities to bury and memorialise soldiers where they fell, rather than to allow exhumation, was controversial. One woman from Leeds, Sarah Ann Smith, founded the British War Graves Association in order to lobby the state to change the policy and allow families to bring their sons’ and husbands’ bodies home if they chose to do so. Whilst this and other similar campaigns were unsuccessful, they show us how difficult it was for families to come to terms with the deaths of their relatives in the war when they did not have a grave they could easily visit. The other enormous difficulty caused by the war, which explains the addition of men’s names to family gravestones in this cemetery, was the thousands of ‘missing’ combatants, when families were unsure until much later, where their son or husband had fallen, and again, families did not have a grave to visit.
Projects like this help us not only to remember those who died in the First World War, but also to understand more deeply the impact it had on families and communities both in Leeds and further afield. All of the people who have contributed to it are therefore to be congratulated for their hard work in uncovering and recording these names.
Professor Alison S. Fell, ‘Legacies of War’ project, University of Leeds