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.

Sir Fabian Ware - picture from History of CWGC
Sir Fabian Ware – CWGC picture

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.

Track X Cemetery
Track X Cemetery near Ypres

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.

Buried together

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.

Tyne Cot

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.

Back of the Graves

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 “thereโ€™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.

36 thoughts

  1. A very interesting article, Becky. I have always been interested in Fabian Ware as my maiden name was Ware. Two years ago there was an interesting exhibition at Brookwood Military Cemetery about his work with the Commonwealth Graves and we were given a moving tour of the graves from all nations and all faiths.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oh I am so glad you found it interesting reading.

      What a vision and determination Fabian Ware had! Like you I often see the gravestones on travels . . . there are a few here in Winchester dotted about in cemeteries and immediately I see their shape I know what they are. And even these individual ones are cared for by the CWGC, I have seen their van a couple of times this year here and men working on the graves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post, Becky. The number of graves that need to be maintained is staggering. Yet the world seems to forget so fast the lessons they should have learned from what so many sacrificed.


  3. My father is thought to be interred in Belgium. He flew a B-24 out of England and was reported missing, then killed in action in April, 1944, when I was 3 months old. The U.S. Army has taken my DNA and are working on identifying remains, but I haven’t heard anything yet…it’s been 2 years. Today and like days make me reflect on the many lives that have been lost in war. :0/ So useless. God bless those who go to protect our freedoms.


    1. Oh I am so so sorry to learn they still don’t know where he is, and that you lost him at such a young age. Do you know where his name is recorded on a memorial?


  4. A fine piece, Becky. Thank you for all the details. The setting up of CWGC was an epic undertaking, and as you say, incurred its own fierce battles.We must keep remembering.

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      1. A while ago I think it was covered in the Radio 4 afternoon play, and that’s where I first heard of the big struggles to get the CWGC set up, and establish equal treatment for all the lost, irrespective of rank.

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  5. What a fascinating post. And what a wonderful achievement. It’s not possible to visit those war graves without being moved beyond measure – and in my case, as far as I know, I have no family members there.

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    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comments. It is as you say incredibly moving. My family was fortunate as most made it back, and so as far as we know only one of my Mum’s Uncles is there. We wish we had a photo of him.

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  6. Super post Becky. And thanks for the link to my post on the Menin Gate. The CWGC has done great work, often in the most horrendous situations. Digging up bodies from a battlefield and attempting to identify them from their remains must be one of the toughest jobs in the world.

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    1. Thank you so much Denzil, and so glad I was able to link to your post. Their work is extraordinary; the ongoing care I find particularly moving.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It all leaves an enormous lump in your throat, doesn’t it? Especially the bit about the adjoining headstones. What an incredible achievement and contribution this man made. Thank you for sharing. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

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      1. It’s Sรกo Martinho’s Day today- wine and chestnuts. Our Portuguese teacher is taking us to the Mercado, if she can tear herself away from the festivities. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m sure you will find a way to pause for a moment . . . the men who died though would be delighted you are enjoying the fruits of a free Europe.

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