A couple of years ago I said I would share a post on Sir Fabian Ware, the man whose vision and determination established the Imperial War Graves Commission, which later became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Not sure why is has taken me so long to prepare this post, but here it is today a 100 years to the day after the first ‘official’ Armistice Day.
Born in 1869 and with a background in education and journalism, Fabian Ware was too old to become a soldier in the First World War. Instead he volunteered with the British Red Cross and became a commander of a mobile hospital unit. His unit was to support more than 12,00 casualties. His attention though soon turned to those who had been killed, and his concerns at the lack of any official or formal mechanism for marking and recording the location of the thousands of graves. Supported by a senior British Army officer, he decided to found a new organisation to rectify this.
It wasn’t long before Fabian realised that a long term plan would be needed, and away from the battlefields he worked hard to convince others of the urgent need for a Commission that could work across geographical boundaries and in cooperation with all Britain’s Imperial allies engaged in the war. His influence stretched to the highest levels and in May 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Royal Charter with the Prince of Wales as its President.
The Imperial may have since become the Commonwealth, but the Commission’s founding principles have never changed; what was done for one should be done for all. By which they meant that:
- Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial
- Headstones and memorials should be permanent
- Headstones should be uniform
- There should be no distinction made on account of military rank, race or creed
Those principles were to cause Fabian high profile battles at times with families, particularly those who considered themselves of a higher rank. The principles also created huge amount of work since in order to provide perpetual commemoration to those who had died, their graves and remains had to be found and reams of paperwork completed to ensure each of the dead were correctly identified.
Where burials had occurred in established burial grounds with clearly marked graves, the graves were simply recorded and registered. However these were the exception, as most of the graves of those who been killed were scattered across the regions where battles had been fought, and in some cases at the end of the war individuals still laid (unburied) where they had fallen.
Despite the difficulty and unpleasantness of the work, the exhumation squads were methodical and meticulous in their searches. Most had seen active service themselves and were painstaking in their search for anything that would help identify a fallen comrade. Nevertheless, battlefield conditions meant that many of these vital indicators were lost and a high proportion of the bodies found remained unknown.
taken from Commonwealth War Graves Commission – ‘About our Records’
In Belgium of the 205,000 British Empire serviceman commemorated, around half have either never been found or have unknown graves. They have not however been forgotten. Their names are listed on one of the four memorials for the missing in Belgium. My photograph below is of the Menin Gate memorial, where nearly 55,000 names are recorded. Denzil only wrote about it yesterday on his Discovering Belgium.
One of the surprising things I learnt from a historian whilst in Belgium in 2017 is that if the headstones are touching then the bodies of the individuals buried will be entwined. We saw more than one grave like this at Tyne Cot, the largest World War One cemetery in the world, some of which even had multiple names on the headstone.
This brings me on to the other incredible work the Commission was doing, which was to ensure that the cemeteries and memorials were equal and uniform. There were, as you might expect, a wealth of ideas on how best to achieve this. So Fabian instructed Sir Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum to interpret the differing architectural proposals and to set out a way forward. His published report in 1918 became the definitive approach (mostly) for the Commission.
One of the exceptions was that of the personal inscriptions. Kenyon had suggested that the Commission decided on the words, and whilst did occur for those whose name was unknown it did not for those identified. It was felt important that families should be able to make their mark. Which meant my great grandfather was one of around 229,000 who wrote a few words (limited to 66 characters) for the headstone of their loved one. He could not write just anything though, all the personal inscriptions had to be approved. As you will see in the gallery below my great grandfather chose to remember his second son with the words;
Although far away ever near
Given the scale and complexity of the task it is not surprising it took until 1938 for the Commission to ‘complete’ (well they thought it was completion at the time) the memorials and cemeteries from the Great War, by which point Fabian had been retired from the Commission for a few years. However his retirement was short-lived, a few days before the outbreak of World War Two, he was recalled to the War Office to once again become Director-General of Graves Registration and Enquiries. He remained in this role until 1944 when he had to retire due to ill health. The work continued without him and by the time World War Two was over the Commission was honouring around 1.7 million men and women.
An extraordinary achievement for a man who was neither a soldier or a politician, but at the same time incredibly sad that so many lives from across the ‘Commonwealth’ need to be remembered because of human conflict.
By the way the CWGC is not responsible for every military grave, they are only responsible for the commemoration of;
- personnel who died between 4 August 1914 and 31 August 1921 and 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947 whilst serving in a Commonwealth military force or specified auxiliary organisation or after they were discharged from a Commonwealth military force, if their death was caused by their wartime service
- Commonwealth civilians who died between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947 as a consequence of enemy action, Allied weapons of war or whilst in an enemy prison camp.
And they are still maintaining 2,500 war cemeteries and memorials, and care for more than a million graves in 23,000 locations spread across more than 150 countries and territories. They are also still burying individuals from these conflicts. Every year since the 1938 the remains of British soldiers who died in World War One are found on the former battlefields. Once found the CWGC work hard to identify the individuals before arranging a burial with military honours. You can discover more about the CWGC in identifying these soldiers here. They are even still building cemeteries, with the most recent one being created 2009. This was the result of an Australian historian finding evidence that a grave for 250 British and Australian WW1 soldiers was hidden in Germany, and then finding the men buried there. It is an extraordinary organisation. I will return later this week with a post on their largest cemetery, but for now take a look at this CWGC map of the scale of their commitment. I think you will be surprised.
Postscript- if you are in the UK you may have seen a Channel 4 documentary last night which suggested the Commission was dishonouring the African dead. The Commission highlights “there’s no simple fix to the past”, however they “will be considering the programme in the coming months and discussing what more can be done to highlight the contribution and sacrifice of so many”. Please see press release for more information.