The intriguing history of a lodge created for those serving in the Imperial War Graves Commission

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Those who dwell in the silent cities

 With Rudyard Kipling as one of its founding members,  how did a masonic lodge created for those serving  in the Imperial War Graves Commission in northern  France find its way to London?

From Gallipoli, the Middle East and Salonika to the European nations along the Western Front, the sites of many First World War graves  were unknown, and in areas where fighting had been heaviest, bodies lay unburied.

The commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross, Sir Fabian Ware, decided that the final resting places of the dead would not be lost. His unit therefore began recording and caring for all the graves they could find. By 1915, this work was given official recognition by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.

With the support of Edward, Prince of Wales, Ware submitted a memorandum on the subject to the Imperial War Conference, and in May 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission, today called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was established by a Royal Charter. 

Undertaking the reburial of the fallen soldiers of Britain and its empire, the commission was empowered to buy land in order to build cemeteries and memorials wherever required. Its work began in earnest after the 1918 armistice that ended the fighting. That year, some 587,000 graves were identified, with a further 559,000 casualties registered as having no known grave.

For commission members who were masons, creating a lodge was the logical progression – the commission was free from political control and was tasked with caring for the graves of men and women from many religions.

With the commission making its headquarters just outside St Omer in March 1919, Lodge No. 12 was consecrated nearby on 7 January 1922 in both the French and English rites.

LITERARY INSPIRATION

Lodge No. 12’s founders included Sir Fabian himself, Sir Herbert Ellissen and Conservative politician Sir Henry Maddocks. But perhaps the most famous founder was Rudyard Kipling, who had joined the commission as literary adviser.

Kipling inspired the eventual name of the lodge: The Builders of the Silent Cities. In the words of the by-laws of No. 12, the name ‘beautifully expresses the vocation of its members, whose sympathetic labour is to construct and maintain permanent resting places and memorials to the glorious and valiant dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War’.

During the 1920s, No. 12 was an active lodge, holding eight meetings a year and giving an opportunity for the study of Freemasonry without encroaching on Degree ceremonies. According to ‘35 Masters, The Story of the Builders of the Silent Cities Lodge, No. 4948’, the lodge built up ‘an enviable reputation for excellent working’, including a modified version of the Sussex working in the Third Degree. It was the only lodge in France to do so and was carried out as a mark of respect for Kipling, who was a Sussex man. 

In 1925, the commission moved to London, and many of the senior members of No. 12 were transferred to England. This naturally led to the need for a London lodge, and on 5 December 1927, the Builders of the Silent Cities Lodge, No. 4948, was consecrated under the English Constitution.

‘O valiant hearts who to your glory came, Through dust of conflict and through battle flame; Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved, Your memory hallowed in the land you loved’ A line from the hymn ‘Oh Valiant Hearts’, which is sung at the end of Lodge No. 4948 meetings

A HALL STONE LODGE

While Ware had been a founder member of No. 12, he was not a member of a lodge in the English Constitution at the time so could not play a similar role in the formation of No. 4948. Ellissen therefore became the first Master and shouldered the burden of most of the work during the lodge’s formative years.

With Freemasons’ Hall a memorial to the brethren who fell in the First World War, it will come as no surprise that Ellissen’s first resolution was that No. 4948 should become a Hall Stone Lodge. Grand Lodge had launched a campaign to raise funds to help in the Hall’s construction, with a target of £1 million. Lodges that contributed an average of 10 guineas per member were to be recorded in the new building as Hall Stone Lodges and the Master of each entitled to wear a special medal on a collarette. Ellissen was determined that the medal should be attained during his Mastership, so that future brethren should know that every Master from the first onwards had worn it during their year of office.

Since its inception, Lodge No. 4948 has had a number of different London homes, meeting at Andertons’ Hotel in Fleet Street, The Rembrandt Hotel on Thurloe Street, The Mostyn Hotel on Portman Square, the Royal Commonwealth Society on Northumberland Avenue and The Park Court Hotel in Bayswater. In 2001, however, it returned home to Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, where it was originally consecrated and still meets today on the third Friday of January, February, March and November.

At the end of every meeting of Lodge No. 4948, ‘Oh Valiant Hearts’ is sung, a hymn specially written for a War Anniversary Intercession Service held in Westminster Abbey in August 1917. Originally titled ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’, the hymn is a fitting tribute to those who dwell in the silent cities.

Thanks to ‘35 Masters, The Story of the Builders of the Silent Cities Lodge’ and ‘The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Builders of the Silent Cities Lodge’. For more information about the Imperial War Graves Commission, now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, go to www.cwgc.org.

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