Some Corner Of A Foreign Field That Is Forever England
Jun 23, 2014
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission owes its existence to the determination of one man. Neither soldier nor politician, Fabian Ware was a director of the Rio Tinto Company when war erupted in 1914. Aged 45 he was too old to enlist and instead pulled strings to serve as commander of a British Red Cross mobile unit.
Ware reached France in September 1914. Saddened by the sheer number of casualties and the lack of any official record of their graves, he felt compelled to do something himself. Ware didn’t want the resting places of the fallen to be lost - a personal vision which chimed with the times, so his unit began recording and caring for all the graves they could find.
By 1915 the War Office recognised their work, granting incorporation as the Graves Registration Commission. Then in 1917, granted Royal Charter, it became the Imperial War Graves Commission. The Prince Of Wales served as President and Ware as Vice-Chairman.
The Commission's work really started in earnest after the Armistice. With land for cemeteries secured, the enormous task of recording the dead began. By 1918 587,000 graves had been identified, with a further 559,000 casualties registered with no known grave.
Three eminent architects - Lutyens, Baker & Blomfield – submitted designs for the cemeteries, whilst author Rudyard Kipling acted as literary advisor, creating suitable inscriptions. Equality was identified as the core ideology, meaning the Commission’s cemeteries across the world would be uniform in both design and aesthetics. The concept called for a walled cemetery with headstones in a garden setting, intended to evoke a traditional English walled garden and hopefully encourage visitors to experience a sense of tranquility. Garden designer Gertrude Jekyll advised on horticulture, while Blomfield's “Cross of Sacrifice” and Lutyens' “Stone of Remembrance” provided formal features. Over 2400 cemeteries were subsequently constructed in France, Belgium, and later Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Macedonia, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Gallipoli Peninsula.
Individual graves lay in straight rows, marked by identical headstones. Each carried the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age, an appropriate religious symbol and a personal dedication chosen by relatives. However, some detractors later argued the uniform aesthetic was deliberately designed to mask and sanitise the nature of war deaths.
Soldiers who’d been too young to enlist or who’d been sought by law enforcement often used pseudonyms and their graves carried the notation "served as," whilst headstones for unidentified casualties bore only what information could be established from the body. Kipling suggested the inscription: "A Soldier of the Great War known unto God".
The Imperial War Graves Commission programme concluded in 1938. But with warfare engulfing Europe again 1939, ongoing cemetery maintenance had to cease until the war finally moved in the Allies' favour, enabling the Commission to return and restore its 1914-1918 cemeteries to their pre-war condition. Then began the task of commemorating the 600,000 Commonwealth casualties from the second conflict. Increased use of air power meant casualties were no longer restricted to military personnel and Prime Minister Winston Churchill also tasked the Commission with creating a roll of honour commemorating the 67,000 civilians who died during the Second World War.
In 1949, the Commission completed the first of 559 new cemeteries, including an RAF memorial at Runnymede, Surrey, commemorating 20,000 men and women killed in operations over northern Europe without any known grave. As construction of Second World War cemeteries concluded during the 1960s, the Commission was finally re-named as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to reflect changing times.
Remains are occasionally still found and buried with full military honours in the Commission's cemeteries and in 2009 the discovery of 250 Australian & British casualties from the Battle of Fromelles required construction of an entirely new cemetery: Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery – opened in 2010. Nowadays CWGC staff replace and repair around 20,000 headstones annually and by commemorating the fallen with simple dignity and true equality, the Commission hopes to encourage future generations to remember the sacrifice made by so many.
Two miles from my office sits the Cotswold village of Amberley – its leafy, secluded churchyard a place far removed from the enormous war cemeteries across the English Channel. Within the churchyard walls, unassuming and anonymous amongst the civilian villagers’ graves, lies a solitary and unique CWGC grave dating from 1949: Major General Sir Fabian Ware.
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.