War history: The man who carried on battling when war was done to honour those killed in action
- Credit: Archant
It seems obvious now that the Great War dead be honoured, but in the aftermath of the fighting, those striving to do so faced opposition. Mike Peters, resident historian at Galloway Travel, tells a tale of resolute determination - and Rudyard Kipling’s part in it all
Last week I looked at the birth of what is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and its founding father, Fabian Ware. But Ware did not always have an easy time in his quest to honour the dead. In the aftermath of the First World War, there were some who just wanted to forget...
Ware made a lot of progress before the end of the war and had an influential ally in the Prince of Wales.
Encouraged by the prince, Ware in May, 1917, submitted a proposal for post-war administration of war graves to the Imperial War Conference. Delegates from across the British Empire approved his ideas for what was initially the Imperial War Graves Commission.
The IWGC was granted a royal charter and the Prince of Wales – himself a veteran of the Western Front – offered personal support, taking on a prominent role as the first president. Ware became vice-president.
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But the years immediately after the war were not the best time to contemplate a project of the scale and cost envisaged by Ware and those who supported him. Britain was war- weary and tired, and a significant and vocal minority had no appetite for Ware’s vision of commemoration.
The plans for large memorials in particular attracted criticism; they were viewed as unnecessary, unduly expensive, and by some – such as poet Siegfried Sassoon – as a glorification of war. Undaunted, and buoyed by support from the overwhelming majority of people in Britain and the Commonwealth, the commission pressed on.
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The royal charter and the patronage of the Prince of Wales added momentum. Determined that cemeteries and memorials would be worthy of the sacrifice they commemorated, the commission set the highest standards.
Three of Britain’s most eminent architects – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – were invited to work on commission projects. These were not just bricks and mortar.
Ware’s original ideas were sophisticated. He wanted those who visited the graves and memorials to find pleasant places where they felt their loved ones were at peace. Leading horticulturists and gardeners were also involved in the design process.
The selection of inscriptions for memorials and headstones was also of great importance. The task of advising on this matter was given to Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the empire.
Kipling had been deeply affected by the loss of son Jack in 1915, during the battle of Loos. Jack’s body had never been found. Kipling and his wife were grief-stricken, and he threw himself into his work for the commission.
In 1921, with the recovery and identification of bodies still going on around the globe, the commission built three experimental cemeteries.
Forceville in France was considered the most successful. Garden designer Gertrude Jekyll advised on the planting and the architects created a walled cemetery with uniform headstones in an English garden setting. Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice and Lutyens’ Stone of Remembrance were the formal features.
After some adjustments, Forceville became the template. Over the next decade a staggering 2,400 cemeteries were constructed in France and Belgium, while work progressed in Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Macedonia, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and on the Gallipoli Peninsula (Turkey).
Equally important were the Memorials to the Missing. The first was Blomfield’s magnificent memorial in Ypres, The Menin Gate Memorial, which commemorates the names of more than 55,000 men on 1,200 panels. Other memorials followed: Tyne Cot in Belgium, designed by Sir Herbert Baker; the Helles Memorial on Gallipoli, designed by Sir John Burnet; the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme is the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens, while the missing in Salonika are commemorated at Lake Doiran, on a monument by Sir Robert Lorimer.
Later, individual member states erected memorials to their dead: the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, the Australians at Villers Bretonneux, and the South Africans at Delville Wood.
The Menin Gate was officially inaugurated in July, 1927. Thousands attended the ceremony, including specially-invited war widows.
Field Marshal Lord Plumer used a few simple words to encapsulate what the commission’s work was all about:
“He is not missing, he is here.”