Empires of the Dead - How One Man's Vision led to the Creation of WWI's War Graves, David Crane

Empires of the Dead - How One Man's Vision led to the Creation of WWI's War Graves, David Crane

This book covers two intertwined topics - first is a biography of Fabian Ware, editor of the Morning Post, Imperialist, volunteer leader of an Ambulance troop early in the First World War and a key player attempts to record the fate of every British soldier lost in battle and second the birth of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the eventual construction of the Commonwealth war cemeteries (Ware being the key player in this process).

I had no idea that the Great War cemeteries were so controversial at the time. In the intervening years they have gained such widespread popular acceptance and become such an iconic image of that war that the post-war debates about the fate of the dead have faded from memory. Here those debates are brought back to life, and the arguments against the system that was eventually adopted become very clear. The founders of the Imperial War Graves Commission were convinced that all of the dead should be buried in collective cemeteries in the areas where they fought. Many of the parents and next of kin of the dead violently disagreed, and wanted the bodies of their loved ones brought home for burial in their local church yards. Not everyone was able to afford to visit the overseas war graves, so the great cemeteries actually denied many parents the chance to visit their son's grave. I also hadn't realised that the creation of war memorials in towns and villages across the country was in part triggered by this controversy, as bereaved parents tried to create a local focus for mourning.

Ware comes across as impressive but flawed - he was a genuine social reformer, a great organiser and effective manager, who had been connected to the Imperialist faction of British opinion and in particular to Alfred Milner, an inflammatory British High Commissioner in South Africa. He was also self-confidence, verging on arrogant and unwilling to admit that other people's opinions could be valid. On the other hand without this level of certainty the Commonwealth war cemeteries probably wouldn't exist. His roles during the First World War were almost entirely humanitarian, beginning with an attempt to rescue wounded British soldiers left behind during the war of movement between Mons and the Marne. This developed into war grave registration, recording the locations of all known graves and from that into the Imperial War Graves Commission, an organisation that dominated the rest of Ware's life.

This is a fascinating story and a balanced biography of a controversial figure who played a central role in guiding the public reaction to the losses of the Great War, but who is now largely forgotten.

1 - The Making of a Visionary
2 - The Mobile Unit
3 - With an Eye to the Future
4 - Consolidation
5 - The Imperial War Graves Commission
6 - Kenyon
7 - Opposition
8 - The Task
9 - Completion
10 - Keeping the Faith

Author: David Crane
Publisher: Harper Collins

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