Fabian Ware: the man who changed how we remember the dead

The smooth white gravestones we will see on Armistice Day treat all fallen combatants as equal

November 09, 2018
Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images

The smooth white gravestones in neat rows, and memorials listing names of soldiers whose remains were never recovered, are iconic features of both World Wars. We will be seeing much of them over the weekend in coverage of services to commemorate the Armistice. They are also entirely radical, in treating combatants of all ranks and backgrounds as equals (notwithstanding statues to the great that might be commissioned separately). In previous conflicts, the leaders and senior officers, the Nelsons and Wellingtons were magnificently celebrated, while the ranks were forgotten. And we have the persistence and vision of one man to thank for changing that.

Born in Bristol in 1869 and educated in Paris and London, Fabian Ware had a bumpy earlier career, roaming from teaching positions to examiner posts. As editor of the Morning Post he managed to turn around the paper’s fortunes, but left acrimoniously.

Too old to fight in 1914, Ware took a job with a Red Cross mobile ambulance unit. As early as 1915, with the war conclusively not over by Christmas, he was foresighted enough to anticipate a nation’s grief. Faced with the horrific loss of life in clashes such as the First and Second Battle of Ypres and Loos, Ware understood the need for permanence, ceremony and closure for tens of thousands of bereaved families. His team began making notes in addition to their ambulance work, faithfully recording where their comrades were laid to rest. Ware knew that when the war was eventually over, people would be making pilgrimages to these sites. He was instrumental in the setting up of an army unit, the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries.

By 1917, following a petition to the Prince of Wales, and aided by a team of experts, he laid the foundations of a mighty undertaking, one organisation to take care of burials of all who died in the conflict from Britain and its Dominions. Rudyard Kipling’s description of the proposed Imperial War Graves Commission as “the greatest piece of work since the Pharaohs, and they only worked in their own country,” was no exaggeration.

Far from admiration, the plans met with scorn. Counter-petitions to the Prince of Wales were submitted. There were debates in the Commons. Opposition came from all parts of society. At the idea of bodies not being repatriated, but laid to rest in battlefield sectors, in foreign lands, citizens from across Britain and the Empire complained that their beloveds were being buried “like dogs.” There was outrage that a cruciform marker would not be used for the graves. Ware’s principles, laid down in Commission advisor Frederick Kenyon’s Report, allowing for tablet headstones that could accommodate all faiths and none seem obvious to us as a way to encapsulate the diversity of an expeditionary force from every continent, but were shockingly profane to many contemporaries.

In higher society, there was alarm that a prince would be buried amongst men. The Countess of Selborne—a woman’s suffrage supporter who drew the line at unmarried women—wrote bitterly for the National Review, “This conscription of bodies is worthy of Lenin.” The highest ranking nobleman in the British Army, Queen Victoria’s youngest grandchild Prince Maurice of Battenberg, gave his life at Zonnebeke in 1914. He is buried in Ypres Town Cemetery where he is still cared for today by the Commission. His mother Princess Beatrice corresponded pleadingly with Ware about the dishonour to a hero of royal blood—but the idealistic Ware held steady. He reportedly bemoaned, “I had hoped that Princess Beatrice would have been ready to give a lead in this question of equality of treatment.” It wasn’t until 1932 that she begrudgingly agreed to the Commission honouring her son under their strict principles.

Ware was not alone in his endeavours. The Commission attracted sharp minds, including men with a much higher profile than him—Frederick Kenyon who was Director of the British Museum, architect Edwin Lutyens who was commissioned to build many of the cemeteries and monuments, including the Somme Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval; Rudyard Kipling who acted as literary advisor and chose the inscription for Lutyens’s Stone of Remembrance, one of the standard features of all Commission cemeteries. There was plenty of disagreement among this dazzling set—Ware helped steady the boat through the storm.

Renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1965, the organisation Ware founded is today as busy as ever. Funded by six member governments, it is responsible for remembering in perpetuity 1.7m people—1.1m who died in the First World War, 600,000 in the Second. It performs about 50 reburials a year and is responsible for a lot of gardening. There have been different arrangements for UK combatants who have died in wars since 1945, part of the remit of the Ministry of Defence. Where the Commission has undoubtedly had lasting impact is in the sense of a collective national duty towards those who fight on her behalf—a revolution in Remembrance, and another expression of the public service we normally associate with nationalisation and the NHS. And there would have been no Commission without Ware—resolute in his determination to do what he believed to be right.