A blogpost by Roelof Bakker giving some background information about why he made How Many Hopes Lie Buried Here Mother, an unbound book of photographs showing ages documented on the headstones of fallen Commonwealth soldiers
Cover of book with black elastic band
Many projects begin with a question. My question was:
“Why do I know so little about the First World War?”
I’m a Dutch artist who’s made London his home since 1984. Ever since I moved to the UK, it has been impossible not to be aware of the First World War, and in particular Remembrance Sunday as an important date in British history.
Growing up in the Netherlands in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I don’t recall learning much about the First World War at school. I guess it was because the Netherlands was neutral in the First World War. Dutch history lessons focused on the Second World War, when the Netherlands were occupied by the Germans after Germany had ignored the plea of the Dutch to remain neutral.
Every country has a different story. Everyone’s history is different. I could say, “Your pain is not my pain.” But the First World War and the Second World War are connected. One led to the other and both wars shaped the Western World I live in today, therefore the First World War is part of my history, whatever I’ve been taught.
In December 2007 I visited First World War cemeteries in and around Ypres. I was struck by the sensitive design and layout of the cemeteries and of the individual headstones. Within the considered minimal design of headstones made of Portland stone, every fallen Commonwealth soldier is remembered in the same way, irrespective of military rank, race or religion.
I started photographing ages on soldiers’ headstones at Tyne Cot Cemetery, wondering what I was up to, what my dreams were, when I was 18, 21, 33, 40. I continued visiting cemeteries back home in and around London, where many municipal cemeteries have sections tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I soon abandoned the idea of solely recording First World War headstones to give the project a wider scope, and began photographing ages on Second World War headstones. When visiting my parents in the Netherlands, I photographed headstones at Arnhem/Oosterbeek War Cemetery, a Second World War cemetery near my childhood home, introducing my experience of growing up in Holland into the project.
Age 18 Brompton Cemetery, London
Age 27 Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium
I made a number of visits to Nunhead Cemetery in south London where there are two sections of First World War graves of fallen Commonwealth soldiers from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The first time I was there in 2008, I noticed the epitaph on the gravestone of a Canadian First World War soldier and photographed it. It reads:
HOW MANY HOPES
LIE BURIED HERE
These words kept haunting me over the years, until eventually it dawned on me that this inscription perfectly summed up what my project was about, what I was trying to express. Once I decided to take this inscription as the title of my photo book, I wanted to find out more about the person whose gravestone it belonged to and who it was who’d supplied the wording for this inscription.
I started my research on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, entering James Carter Irwin’s regimental number 475895 and continued my research online at ancestry.com, Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian War Project.
I learnt that James Carter Irwin was a seventeen-year-old bank clerk from Ontario, Canada, when he enlisted the army in 1915, lying about his age (on the form he changed his date of birth to become eighteen). He joined the Princes Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in the field on 30 May 1916 in Ypres and three days later, on 2 June 1916, was seriously wounded in the Battle of Mount Sorrell. He was taken to the UK to King George Hospital in Stamford Street, London SE1, where he died of his wounds on 31 July 1916, 100 years ago, aged eighteen. He is interred at Nunhead Cemetery.
James Carter Irwin, Attestation Paper, 3 August 1915, on which James lies about his age (year of birth is 1898, not 1897)
The ‘Headstone Personal Inscription Form’ showed me that his mother, Jennie Carter Irwin had instructed the inscription, asking the question herself, How Many Hopes Lie Buried Here? (signed) Mother.
Headstone personal inscription form line 73, HOW MANY HOPES LIE BURIED HERE MOTHER
War is not just about the fallen, but also about everyone else affected and so I decided to dedicate the book to both James and his mother Jennie.
In the book the photographs are printed postcard-size and organized in ascending numerical order, showing all ages from eighteen to fifty – every age from the beginning of my adult life to when I reached fifty. During these thirty-three years I feel fortunate to have materialised some of my hopes and dreams, including the making of this book.
What hopes and dreams did the men have whose graves I photographed?
The pages are unbound, separate like gravestones, and are held together by a black band. The back of the postcards are blank: these are cards for quiet contemplation, not for sending.
The book was launched at James Carter Irwin’s grave in Nunhead Cemetery in south London on the centenary of his death on the 31 July 2016. In a short speech I paid tribute to him and his mother Jennie Carter Irwin and laid flowers on his grave.
How Many Hopes Lie Buried Here Mother is available from www.neg-press.com/shop in a numbered edition of fifty.
Further information: www.rbakker.com/hopes