Sunday, 1 December 2013

In praise of: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

If you've ever been involved in researching a member of the UK forces who was killed in WW1, you'd have given thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Their records are invaluable as they detail the burial place of nearly two million dead from not only the two 'great' wars but also many other minor conflicts. The CWGC database, accessible free via their website, is the first place to go to get started. I've used it many, many times but I'd never given much thought to the origins of the CWGC. Reading David Crane's recent book, 'Empires of the Dead: How one man's vision led to the creation of WW1's War Graves', has changed that.

Before WWI, little provision was made for the burial of our war dead. Soldiers were often unceremoniously dumped in mass graves whilst officers were shipped home for burial. The great cemeteries of WWI came about as a result of the efforts of one inspired visionary. In 1914, Fabian Ware joined the Red Cross, working on the front line in France. The sheer scale of the killing and maiming presented unprecedented challenges. Horrified by the hasty burials, from the first he tried to establish a method of uniformly recognising the fallen with a simple cross and template to stencil on the name, rank, number and unit. Within three years he had established a War Graves Registration unit, which in 1917 became the Imperial War Graves Commission, and later the CWGC. 

How Ware achieved this, quite often in the teeth of opposition from the politicians, the Crown, the Army and Whitehall bureaucracy, is the subject of Crane’s book. It is not a biography of Ware as such, but it does put the early years of his creating the commission into the context of the times and, as such, it gives extraordinary insights into the prevailing prejudices and hang-ups of official and unofficial Britain.

Ware's vision was based on the simple and egalitarian proposition that the dead should be buried as close as possible to where they fell (many objected and wanted their sons brought home, but Ware’s vision prevailed – until the Falklands War in 1982, when families could choose to bring their fallen home). They should be buried irrespective of rank with privates and soldiers alongside colonels and brigadiers. This philosophy translated into the simple 'standard' headstone, modelled by Edwin Lutyens on secular lines, thus making it suitable for the dead of all the countries of the Empire, irrespective of their religions. The cemeteries themselves were designed by Lutyens and his rather combative fellow architects Reginald Blomfield and Herbert Baker and were set off by flowers of the English countryside — a touch of inspiration from the Gertrude Jekyll. These cemeteries were designed to be commemorative, to mark the dead and provide sites of mourning, and not to trumpet military or imperial glory. Rudyard Kipling, who was mourning the loss of his 18-year-old son Jack at Loos in 1915, for whom there was no grave, added the poignant phrase “a soldier of the Great War known unto God” – to offer solace.

Given the subject matter, I'm not sure that 'enjoyed' is the right term to use about the book but I did. Understanding the establishment of the CWGC and the trials and tribulations underlying its prime task - identifying, retrieving and burying a body - somehow adds to the search for those commemorated. Recommended reading.
A view of the Railway Dugouts War Cemetery near Ypres in Flanders. It's a typical CWGC site and is the resting place of William Conibear who I mentioned in a recent post.
William Conibear's headstone in the Railway Dugouts Cemetery, showing the simple, clean lines of Lutyens' design.

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