War history: Cemetries have huge emotional impact on visitors to First World War battlefields

King George V with Fabian Ware and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, inspecting wooden crosses in Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium, in May, 1922. King George V with Fabian Ware and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, inspecting wooden crosses in Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium, in May, 1922.

Saturday, January 25, 2014
1:30 PM

Fabian Ware was determined our fallen heroes would never be forgotten. Sadly, history hasn’t greatly remembered him. Mike Peters, Galloway Travel’s military historian, aims to put that right

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I have been visiting battlefields for more than 30 years and leading tours for over 20. One thing that has remained constant is the huge emotional impact that the cemeteries of all nations have on battlefield visitors. Many readers will be familiar with the cemeteries that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) manages on our behalf. These are emotive places that can affect even people that have no direct link to the First World War or the cemeteries we visit.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. CWGC maintains a staggering 23,000 cemeteries, burial plots and memorials to those who have died in 153 countries. Surprisingly few people actually know the origins of the commission or the ethos that led to its creation.

In 1922, only four years after the armistice, King George V visited Flanders. He toured the still-devastated landscape, viewing many of the cemeteries being put in place. The monarch was clearly moved by what he saw, saying: “I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”

It captured the sentiment of the post-war world – war should never be allowed to happen again. From personal experience, this feeling is usually coupled with the powerful emotion of grief and, after years of war, a need to mourn the dead appropriately. An overwhelming desire was shared across Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth. With few exceptions, men and women of every nationality and social class were determined that the sacrifice of those who had died, and those that were still missing, must never be forgotten.

The silent witnesses to which King George referred were, of course, the dead: the bodies of almost a million British and Commonwealth soldiers now scattered over the Western Front, many even further afield. At the end of the war, makeshift field cemeteries and bodies seemed to litter every far-flung corner of the globe. Thankfully one man, Fabian Ware, had foreseen the need for an organisation dedicated to the recovery, identification, burial and commemoration of the dead and the missing of the First World War.

Early in the war, Ware had realised that this conflict was nothing like previous wars. Shocked by the huge casualty figures, he saw the human cost at first-hand and knew the final cost of victory would be unprecedented. With these thoughts in mind, he anticipated what public reaction would be when hostilities ceased. He knew the families of the dead would want to see the battlefields for themselves. This was especially true of the Western Front.

The last campaign that Britain had fought so close to home had culminated in the carnage that was the Battle of Waterloo. In its aftermath, few but the rich could afford to visit the battlefield in Belgium. This was not the case in 20th Century Britain; bereaved families could afford to make private pilgrimages to Belgium and France. Ware envisaged thousands of bereaved relatives making their way from all over the British Empire to see the battlefields and visit the grave of their loved one.

Ware was not a soldier; at 45 he was too old to fight. Instead he became the commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross. He felt driven to find a way to ensure the resting places of the dead would not be lost. Under his dynamic leadership, his unit began recording and caring for all the graves they could find. By 1915, their work was given official recognition by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.

Once land for cemeteries and memorials was guaranteed, the enormous task of recording the details of the dead began. By 1918, some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties registered as having no known grave. This was a daunting task beyond the scale of any previous war. Thankfully, the man at the head of the commission had a clear vision of what must be done.

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