I found last month’s commemoration of the end of the First World War both moving and intensely thought-provoking. Like many in Scotland, it was a catastrophe that marked my family; both my grandfathers fought and survived, but a great uncle did not and he lies with his Canadian Scots pals in Flanders in one of the strikingly beautiful Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries.
Because of the family connections I have always been familiar with the causes, campaigns and consequences of the Great War. But there were things I did not know. I only learned last month of the bitter arguments about what to do with the remains of the thousands of British war dead, buried where they fell on the battlefield or in the ad-hoc cemeteries next to the frontline field hospitals.
After the war, the authorities resisted pleas to bring them home. In the seemingly callous way of officialdom, it was explained that with so many unidentified bodies and thousands more who were lost in the mud or blown to smithereens, it would have been an impossible undertaking – a matter of cold, hard practicality.
But rising to counter the official line came a formidable force, the mothers of the dead, grieving for their boys and determined to see them given the dignity in death that most had been denied in life. They petitioned, marched and campaigned – and driven by their heartbreak they were not to be denied. In the end, they did much to ensure that the newly formed Imperial War Graves Commission established the beautiful cemeteries that we still visit in our thousands today. It is a legacy born of despair but one that these stoic women of 100 years ago should be remembered for.
Of course 1918 is history now, it’s unimaginable that today in our enlightened times we would treat the dead and their families so callously – except that in some cases we do. Early on New Year’s Day, 2017, Shaun Woodburn, an affable young man, was attacked by youths in an Edinburgh street and died from his injuries. It was a vicious assault on an innocent man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three arrests followed quickly and the cumbersome apparatus of the legal system kicked in.
To establish a cause of death in cases of suspected murder, a full double-doctor post-mortem is carried out by independent pathologists on behalf of the Crown. This is harrowing enough for the family, but the lawyers for each accused also have the right to have their own independent examination carried out. Usually there is little to gain other than a fat fee – the original post-mortems are videoed and, in cases like Shaun’s, the cause of death is seldom in contention. Yet the system grinds on, subjecting families like the Woodburns to slow torture, imagining the body of their son being dissected time after time. Shaun’s father summed it up perfectly: “A barbaric medieval process that puts an already traumatised family through the ringer.” The experience of the Woodburns is not uncommon, 200 families waited two weeks or more for their loved one’s body to be released; one family waited 217 days – unimaginable.
But from the disaster of Shaun’s death has come a positive development. Due to the campaigning of the Woodburns and their supporters, a new protocol has been agreed. Shaun’s Law limits second post-mortems unless absolutely necessary. There’s even talk of an independent victims commissioner – long overdue.
We should congratulate the Woodburn family. In their darkest hour, they have done us a great service in the memory of their son. And, like the mothers of 1918, they remind us what small groups of determined people can achieve.
Tom Wood is a writer and former deputy chief constable