Book review: Empires of the Dead by David Crane

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It strikes at the heart of the debate about what we are commemorating, celebrating or deploring and does so by looking at the achievement of Fabian Ware, who to this day is almost an unknown in the pantheon of those associated with the conflict.

In September 1914, Ware, then in his mid-forties, arrived in France with a motley collection of vehicles, largely furnished by private subscription through the RAC and the Red Cross, to form the Mobile Ambulance Unit. The British Expeditionary Force had already sustained huge casualties – and the decisive action on the Marne to check the German advance on Paris was still to come.

Ware must have cut an extraordinary figure. He had served for four years as editor of the Morning Post, but was sacked for his views on Empire free trade. His family had been strict Plymouth Brethren, but in adolescence he had broken away and become devoted to the vision of the British Empire espoused and prosecuted by Alfred Milner, whom he served in the Boer War.

Milner was to be a patron in Ware’s main achievement, which began the moment he sent his ambulances to the battlefront. His extraordinary mix of qualities – a journalist’s eye for the main story, a diplomat’s skill in negotiation and a ruthless streak of practicality – led him quickly to realise that the services for rescuing the wounded and recovering the dead were woefully inadequate.

The sheer volume of killing and maiming presented unprecedented dilemmas. 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.

Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates or marks the burial place of nearly two million dead from two great wars, and dozens of minor conflicts, in settings of some of the greatest commemorative architecture and imagery in Western civilisation.

How Ware achieved this, on occasion in the teeth of opposition from the politicians, the Crown, the Army and Whitehall bureaucracy – an opposition that was to continue to the outbreak of the Second World War – is the subject of Crane’s intriguing book. It is not a life of Ware as such, but in tracing the early years of his creating the commission it offers extraordinary insights into the prejudices and hang-ups of official and unofficial Britain of the times.

The vision was based on the simple proposition that the dead should be buried as close as possible to where they fell. They should be buried irrespective of rank, privates and soldiers alongside colonels and brigadiers. It is encapsulated by the simple headstone, modelled by Edwin Lutyens on classical, not Christian, lines. The cemeteries were designed by Lutyens and his combative fellow architects Reginald Blomfield and Herbert Baker, set off by flowers of the English countryside — a touch of genius from Lutyens’ ageing mentor Gertrude Jekyll.

These are designed to be commemorative, to mark the dead and provide sites of mourning, and not to trumpet military glory. Rudyard Kipling, mourning the loss of his 18-year-old son Jack at Loos in 1915, for whom there was no grave, added a touch of genius – the line “a soldier of the Great War known unto God” – to offer solace.

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. Since then we have had the rituals of repatriation, such as those at Royal Wootton Bassett, in which commemoration has almost become show.

David Crane reaches, as no other recent author has, to the heart of the dilemma of commemoration of the First World War. He helps explain why, in Paul Fussell’s phrase, the Great War is “part of modern memory”, and shouldn’t be dismissed as modern embarrassment.

Empires of the Dead

by David Crane

William Collins, 304pp, £16.99