My most recent book finish is Empires of the Dead, by David Crane. It discusses the formation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from it’s first inklings to the 1920s with a focus on its founder, Imperialist Fabian Ware. I have two books on this subject. The other, The Unending Vigil, by Philip Longworth, I hope to read before my trip to Europe in April.
…these fields are sacred in a sense, and I wish that when peace comes, our [governments might combine] to make one long avenue between the lines… Then I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on pilgrimage along that Via Sacra, so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.
(excerpt from a letter home written by Douglas Gillespie in June 2015, reprinted on page 75 of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead.)
I have shared this sentiment since my first visit to ones around Vimy Ridge, France in 1998.
Commonwealth War Graves
The Commonwealth cemeteries I visited throughout Western Europe were very uniform. Some days, we visited so many military cemeteries and sites that I almost lost track of which one we were approaching. We could, however, pick out a Commonwealth War Graves site as soon as we approached. The uniform headstones with their emblems, the Cross of Sacrifice or Stone of Remembrance, the guest book.
After leaving Europe in 2001, my travels did not take me to any battlefields, or military cemeteries again until I travelled to Gallipoli, in Turkey, in the fall of 2015. Despite the almost fifteen year gap, the images of the cemeteries I had visited stayed with me. Arriving at V Beach Cemetery, the differences from the ones I’d seen in Western Europe had me questioning if this was a Commonwealth cemetery at all. I thought perhaps I was in a Turkish or French cemetery, until I saw the familiar Stone of Remembrance. The differences, as well as my continuing interest in the subject, had me asking a lot of questions. I wanted as many of them answered before I return to the battlefields in April.
Empires of the Dead
Enter Empires of the Dead.
The book opens with a short biography of Ware. We get a sense of what motivated him to create this commission. That motivation was not necessarily respect for the fallen. It was the Empire. He saw the project and the cause of the war graves – and the First World War in general – as a common goal, a common tragedy, that would re-unite the Empire he felt was beginning to crumble
Fans of Rudyard Kipling may find this book interesting, as he was an important figure in what eventually became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A more prominent member, as it turns out, than many may realise. The literary advisor and public spokesman, Kipling selected the biblical passage “Their name liveth for evermore” for the Stones of Remembrance and suggested “Known Unto God” for the graves of unknown soldiers.
Part of this unification required dealing with cultural sensitives. The British Empire touched every corner of the globe. He had to deal with not only all the religious requirements of the various Christian denominations, but the differences of burial rights of countless religions and cultures from across the world – Egypt, China, South Africa, India, and more.
There were secular differences, as well. Britain was a nation still characterized by strong class divisions, “forced to cope with a war that was as indiscriminate in its killing as the plague”. (Crane, p. 11.) Some wives could afford to have their husbands brought back to Britain, but were denied; families thought their officer sons should not be buried with their lower class, enlisted men; friends and brothers-in-arms were happy to know their loved one was buried next to those with whom he fell.
I have been to these cemeteries; I know how they turn out. A chapter that detailed the challenges Ware had even to get people on board to support the idea, let alone make it actually happen, should not have kept me on the edge of my seat as I read it. Nevertheless, it did. Whether it be because of Crane’s writing or one hundred years of hindsight, I found myself biting my nails in between turning the pages to see what happened next, even as images of my visits to the exact cemeteries they mentioned entered my mind.
Reading this book prior to returning to these sites was a good decision. I learned a lot more about the cemeteries and the history behind them. I also came away with even more respect for them, as well as a lot of interesting bits of information and things to look out for. Perhaps too many things, considering the short amount of free time I have on the trip. I also have many more questions to answer. I look forward to reading the other book I have, and to researching more of this on my own. There is so much more to learn about just this one aspect of the two World Wars.
For more photos I have taken at various memorials and cemeteries, check out my photos on Flickr. Have you visited any military cemeteries? Share your experiences in the comments!