Dear Readers, in his book ‘Where Poppies Blow’ (reviewed yesterday), John Lewis-Stempel tells the story of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), a most revolutionary response to the slaughter of the First World War, but led by a most surprising rebel. Sir Fabian Ware was a Tory who, at the age of forty-five, was too old to fight in the war, but instead became the commander of the Mobile Ambulance Unit of the Red Cross. Ware’s unit did more than transport the dead, though: it also searched for the graves of those who had been killed, largely at his urging.
The army had little time to deal with their dead, and fallen soldiers often ended up in hastily-dug, shallow graves, often dug by their comrades, with nothing but a cross whittled from branches and maybe a few scrawled words. Marking these graves with a proper wooden cross and a metal identification plate soon became the sole job of Ware’s unit, which was renamed the ‘Graves Registration Commission’.
However, this wasn’t enough for Ware, who had not only a vision of how the fallen should be commemorated, but the connections to make it a reality. In 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded, with Ware as vice-chair and Lord Derby as figurehead.
But it was how they decided to memorialise the dead that was truly radical. Get this.
“The IWGC determined that all war graves should be uniform, because ‘private initiative’ would lead to the well-to-do erecting ‘costly monuments’ which would ‘contrast unkindly with those humbler ones which would be all the poorer folk could afford’. Some families, notably that of the former prime minister Gladstone, had already disinterred the bodies of relatives and repatriated them. Ware stopped the practice because it smacked of privilege. Soldiers were to be buried in the foreign fields where they fell’ (pg 311 ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel)
Ware insisted that the cemeteries and memorials were constructed of the finest available materials, and that they were designed by the greatest architects of the day, including Sir Edwin Lutyens. By 1927 the IWGC had overseen the construction of more than 500 permanent cemeteries, with over 400 headstones, and had also built memorials to the missing close to the sites of some of the fiercest World War One battles, such as Thiepval and the Ypres Salient (commemorated by the memorial at the Menin Gate). The Menin Gate memorial holds the names of 54,000 of the missing, but a further 34,000 who died at Ypres had to be commemorated on a separate monument at Tyne Cot, close to Passchendael in Belgium.
Right from the start, the War Graves cemeteries and memorials were thought to be gardens of remembrance rather than just ‘depositories for the deceased’. I always find the simplicity of the designs, the egalitarian nature of those rows of stones very moving: however hierarchical the army was, men and officers lay here together, as they did when they died. And there’s something about the lawns and the flowers that seems like a quintessential English garden of a certain era to me. They are certainly peaceful places, full of bird song and the buzzing of bees. I’m reminded of the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, ‘God’s Garden’. I find this verse strangely moving, even as a non-Christian. After so much bloodshed and suffering, I can only hope that there is peace.
The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.