David Crane's slim volume, Empires of the Dead, tells the big, but little told story of Fabian Ware who fought for the creation of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) Graves Commission that set up the war cemeteries to bury the Great War dead of Britain and her Imperial allies. Previous British wars had done little to provide worthy (or even recorded) graves for its lower ranks.
Officers were always different. Bodies repatriated by wealthy families, the highest ranking also had monuments erected across Britain and the Empire to commemorate their battles. Less attention was given to those who were not officers. There had been a public outcry at the end of the Boer War.
Ware, leading an ambulance team in France at the outbreak of war was determined that this war should provide equally for those killed, regardless of rank. He was determined that every individual casualty should be honoured. His inspiration and determination resulted in those immaculate graveyards we now see 100 years later not just on the western front battlefields of the Somme and Ypres but also in Gallipoli, Palestine and wherever Imperial troops had fought. Between 1920 and 1923, the Commission was shipping 4,000 headstones a week to France where already during the war the French government had enacted Ware with the right to acquire land for burials. By 1927, when the majority of construction had been completed, over 500 cemeteries had been built, with 400,000 headstones. The headstones were all to be to a set standard - similar dimensions with strict control over design to ensure regularity (2'6" tall, 1'3" by 3" deep, regimental badge, name, rank, date of death and space for a short inscription by relatives vetted by the Commission). There was to be no distinction between officers and men. Men would be buried where they died, or as close to that as possible. Where remains could not be identified or found, the names of the fallen would be listed on walls on the monuments or cemetries close to their place of death. Again, no distinction would be made by rank. No bodies were to be repatriated. A team of architects including Lutyens and Blomfield would design the cemeteries and monuments. Kipling would supervise inscriptions.
In a time when state intervention was still rare there was opposition to this standardisation, especially the ban on repatriation. Landed families were especially vociferous in their opposition to no repatriation but the regulation was upheld (eventually) in Parliament. Paradoxically, this did mean though that although all were buried similarly in death, families of the poor were largely unable to visit the overseas graves due to cost. The wealthy could visit regularly.
Ware though was no socialist. His intention was not to show the equality of rank, but rather the equality of members of an Empire fighting and dying as one for the British Empire. Rich or poor, Indian or Welsh, major or private their sacrifice for the Empire would be displayed in the same way by the rows of headstones. He hoped his Imperial War Graves Commission would draw the Empire together and show its steadfastness. In reality Gallipoli cemeteries eventually did more to support a growing national awareness in the antipodes.
Ware's cemeteries have done more though than provide a necessary dignified resting place for a nation's fallen. Writing touchingly in places, Crane shows how Ware's work made it possible for Britain at least to come to terms with the huge debt it owed its dead and the neat, well tended presence of those graves today along with their accompanying monuments such as the Menin Gate and Thiepval on the Somme do much to present the futility of the war to future generations as well as the sacrifice of the young of 1914-18.
The Guardian: Detailed review by Thomas Laqueur, professor of History at the University of California
Spectator: Review by Gavin Stamp
Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Interview with David Crane, author of ‘Empires of the Dead’ about his motivation for writing the book and why he thinks Fabian Ware should be better known.
linked casahistoria site: World War 1