Following the constitution of the Imperial War Graves Commission by Royal Charter in May 1917, the Commission was officially charged with the care of the dead from all of the British Empire’s armed forces. The scope and magnitude of such an undertaking was and still is perplexing. Even the seemingly “simple”, (though it never was), task of collecting the bodies represented an astronomical amount of required manpower. An example of the scope of work facing the Commission can be found in the description of Lorette Ridge by Corporal Becker, 75th (Mississauga) Battalion, who observed the area while in the Lens sector during the build up to Hill 70 in July 1917:
“It was said that the bones of at least 40,000 men were bleaching on that hill… British Labour Battalions were now at work gathering up the remains, identifying them from the discs found here and there among the bones, bundling such personal articles as remained and tagging them for French authorities who would subsequently forward them to next of kin… The memory of that great battlefield is with me yet. I wandered through the shell pitted area frequently in those two weeks and even now can see the white bones, fragments of red pants and blue coats, the small caps… the grey of the German uniforms, the leather boots with foot bones in them, the broken rifles, the rusty ammunition, the skulls – many with bullet holes in them – the watches, decayed leather wallets with personal articles in them, the wire and stumps and stones and trenches and shell holes. It was impossible to identify any particular skeleton… The Labour units had not made much headway on it in the two months they had been there… Here and there one would come upon a rifle stuck bayonet down in the ground with the remains of a cap on the butt – mute evidence of the effort of the soldier whose skeleton lay alongside to bring assistance to him as he lay helplessly wounded – assistance that had not reached him for two and one-half years. I wish that some of our fire-eaters at home could have seen that ground as I saw it in 1917. (Becker, Silhouettes of The Great War, p. 105).
In the midst of the public turmoil being caused by the discussion of Sir Fabian Ware’s long term intentions for the Commission, the simple need for at least some sort of graves registration system was not lost on those serving at the front. In fact, it was the complete lack of such a system that was causing them distress. Canadian Stretcher-Bearer Ralph Watson lamented to his wife in a letter dated 8 July 1917:
‘The dead stay where they are, with a rubber sheet or an old sandbag, to cover their faces. Later, maybe that night or the next, a fatigue party will climb over the parados and scratch a grave a few yards from the trench, cursing the flares, and flopping, as Fritz plays a machine gun casually, just on the off chance, all along the ground behind, as a man might play a hose on a lawn.’
‘These graves are not marked. How could they be? Some one takes all the letters and things out of the pockets; eventually, if the man who has them doesn’t get blown to pieces, they reach the Quartermaster, who sends them home. Some one writes a letter, and that’s all. No advance, no spectacular raid, not even repelling an attack. So many dead Hienies, so many dead Britishers. And so she goes. And such is a “trip in” ‘ (Watson, Letters of a Canadian Stretcher-Bearer, 1914-1917, p. 138).
In today’s post on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission we continue our discussion from last week, looking at the tension that was rising from Sir Fabian Ware’s desire to keep all graves near the battlefields. Ware’s small team found itself battling with wealthy and influential families who wished to have their relatives exhumed and repatriated to England for a family burial.
The debate between repatriation and equal treatment of graves carried on after the war and Sir Fabian Ware was prompted to release official statements to the press, outlining the Commission’s vision, stating: “a higher ideal than that of private burial at home is embodied in these war cemeteries in foreign lands, where those who fought and fell together, officers and men, lie together in their last resting place, facing the line they gave their lives to maintain” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
The issue eventually came to a head in a parliamentary debate in May 1920. Commission advocates insisted that the war had “fused and welded into one, without distinction of race, colour or creed”, men from all over the Empire who were “ready to die for one common cause that they all understood” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25). Countering, critics of the Commission called it “a terrible confusion of thought… the idea that you are entitled to take the bodies of heroes from the care of relatives and build them into a national state memorial” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25). In advocacy for the additional memorials, Burdett Coutts, MP for Westminster, noted that there were parents with no grave to visit. “Their boys were missing and their bodies remained undiscovered. For those parents the bitter reality was that they would never be able to have a name inscribed on a headstone in a known resting place” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
Ultimately, the House voted in favour of the Commission, believing it represented the desires of most of the Empire’s citizens. The vote had finally ratified the last six years of the Commission’s work (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
Having gained official recognition and responsibility for their tasks in February 1915, the Graves Registration Commission set to work with great expediency. Despite entire sections of the country being occupied by enemy forces, Sir Fabian Ware had to begin negotiating with France for the acquisition of lands for burial. The land and care of graves was offered in perpetuity, but the Graves Registration Commission accepted only the land, choosing to keep maintenance of the graves a British responsibility (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15). In cooperation with the French, the cemetery sites were chosen, giving consideration to post-war agricultural needs and proximity to housing. Furthermore, regulations regarding the space between graves and width of paths between rows were determined, in order to reduce the amount of space taken up by the dozens of cemeteries that would surely occupy the countryside after the war (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
After gaining official recognition in February 1915, the work of the Graves Registration Commission had become well-known in the Commonwealth, stirring both positive and negative reactions. Although not the Commission’s responsibility, public requests for information and photographs soon followed. By March 1915, Ware agreed to assume this task, and by August, 2,000 photographs depicting four graves in each had been printed, to be dispatched to enquiring relatives. These were sent along with information cards that listed the grave’s condition and directions to the nearest corresponding railway station should anyone wish to visit after the war (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
Meanwhile, the desire to treat all as equals in death had drawn the ire of various wealthy and influential families. They rebuked the idea that officers and men should share common graves and many were initially successful in exhuming and repatriating remains to the United Kingdom. These repatriations had largely been carried out clandestinely, as an order banning exhumation had already been issued in March 1915 by the French Army’s Commander-In-Chief Marshal Joffre. In perhaps one of the most macabre aspects of the war, the Graves Registration Commission now had to contend with not just the perils of war, but also clandestine “grave robbers” hired to exhume bodies in the dark of night and sneak them back across the English Channel.
We will look at the conclusion of this debate in next week’s post.
After Lt.-Col. Edward Stewart’s visit to Sir Fabian Ware in October 1914, his Mobile Unit’s work had gained support, and eventually official recognition in February 1915, becoming officially responsible for finding, marking and registering all graves in France (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). As the war’s attrition increased, public pressure from those at home had re-enforced the need for a registration such as Ware was proposing. Letters were being written to newspapers and government officials, both requesting information for the graves of loved ones, but also expressing angst that none was being provided.
“One such, on 9 January 1915, told of a woman who had tried to locate the grave of her brother and had been disturbed to find that every trace of the cross or other identifying marks described to her by his comrades had disappeared” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). Renamed the Graves Registration Commission, they set to their work with haste and purpose. Nearly a year into the war, Sir Fabian Ware’s men were already facing a backlog of thousands of unregistered graves. The task of registration “meant locating and marking a burial site and where necessary erecting an inscribed wooden cross” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). Once registered, the grave’s details were recorded by the officer responsible for that battle sector, who in turn created a report of all graves his sector (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
A member of the Graves Registration Commission remarked that the work required “considerable patience and some skill as an amateur detective to find the grave of some poor fellow who has been shot in some out of the way turnip field and hurriedly buried, but I feel my modest efforts amply rewarded when I return a day or two later with a wooden cross with a neat inscription and plant it at the head of his grave, for I have the proud satisfaction of knowing that I have done some slight honour to one brave man who has died for his country” (H. Broadley, quoted in Longworth’s unpublished manuscript for The Unending Vigil, sourced from Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
During the period of May to October of 1915, Ware’s men registered 31,182 graves alone.
In May we marked the 100th Anniversary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by introducing Sir Fabian Ware, a 45-year-old education director who, in September 1914, went to France desperate to serve his country. When Lt.-Col. Edward Stewart visited Ware’s Mobile Unit for the Red Cross in October, he was pleased with the additional work and care Ware’s staff had undertaken for the graves. In a Bethune Cemetery, Ware’s men had ensured British graves received labelled wooden crosses. Yet even at this early stage, Stewart was alarmed at the seemingly temporary nature with which graves registration was being treated:
“On most of these graves the names were only inscribed in pencil and we gave instructions at once that they should be painted on, on the reverse side to the pencil inscriptions”
(Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
Besides the pencil markings on wooden crosses, registration had only gone so far as the cemetery book kept by the original French caretaker, and Ware realized its incomplete state was probably reflective of all burials across the entire Western Front. With Stewart’s backing, Ware’s Mobile Unit was provided with the means to undertake the marking, registering, and tending of “all the British graves it could find” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
May 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s inception. In honour of this occasion, we will be starting a new series exploring the creation of both the CWGC and the many memorials and cemeteries it now cares for in perpetuity.
At the onset of war, former schoolmaster, Director of Education in the Transvaal, Morning Post editor and mining director, Fabian Ware found himself too old to serve in the British Expeditionary Force. With a wealth of worldly experience and determined to still do his bit at the age of 45, Ware managed to obtain command of a mobile ambulance unit with the British Red Cross.
Once overseas, Ware became troubled by the absence of an official process for the marking and recording of the fallen. Under his own initiative and direction, Ware’s ambulance unit began recording and caring for all graves they came across. Ware’s efforts quickly drew the attention of his superiors and his unit was transferred from the British Red Cross to the British Army. The War Office followed suit by providing Ware’s unit official recognition as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915. By October of the same year, Ware’s unit had 31,000 graves registered.