The smooth white gravestones we will see on Armistice Day treat all fallen combatants as equalby Joshua Neicho, Kath Temple / November 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
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,…