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on 30 November 2013
I have been visiting the CWGC cemeteries for the past dozen years seeking, recording and photographing the 93 graves and memorials of the Fallen of our local Suffolk Benefice and also as a volunteer for the War Graves Photographic Project. In spite of this experience my understanding of the enormous task that the Commission had to deal with after both the wars has been greatly added to by this absorbing book. It should be widely read as we approach the commemoration of thestart of Great War - as it was termed in my youth.
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The British First World War cemeteries in France and Belgium seem so inevitable now from the distance of a hundred years, so natural, row after row of identical white headstones, serried ranks all facing East (towards the enemy, as they died), all equal in death, no grand monuments to the elevated in rank or title. There is something tremendously beautiful about those cemeteries, a poignancy and a peace that seems very much at odds with how they died. Most cemeteries evoke nothing more than an English country garden, with green lawns, shading trees and herbaceous borders. There is one in Ypres, the Ramparts Cemetery, which could literally be a country garden, with a sloping lawn down to a pond, willow trees, flowers. Somehow the headstones seem to fit.

This was all deliberate, of course, and all the work of the (then) Imperial War Graves Commission and its chief Fabian Ware. Ware started out in France as the head of a Red Cross Ambulance Unit, and as much as recovering live soldiers his work inevitably involved locating and marking the graves of those they could not save. As it would be wont to on the Western Front, the work escalated, and eventually it became a full-time role.

The First World War cemeteries are so much a part of our cultural memory of the war, so much a part of its iconography, that it is easy to forget just how much resistance there was to the concept at all. Many bereaved relatives were dismayed and horrified to learn that they could not bring their loved ones' bodies home, that they could not pay for grand monuments or tombs, that just as they had to sacrifice their sons and brothers and husbands and fathers to the nation in life, they must now do so also in death.

It is testament to Fabian Ware and then (now) Commonwealth War Graves Commission that they overcame this resistance, and the legacy we see now, a hundred years on. The Cenotaph, the Menin Gates, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Tyne Cot - all a result of the vision of one man. It is hard to imagine remembering the Great War without these visual reminders. The real genius is how they manage to simultaneously convey the sheer staggering scale of the dead whilst also preserving something of equality and individuality.
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on 23 December 2013
A fascinating story of a determined man. But amongst other powerful characters like Milner, Kipling, Lutyens etc Ware himself remains something of a cypher. There is much on his achievement, but little revelation of the man, and the inner springs of his determination. Much of the correspondence is official, and one feels that his abiding passion might have spilled over into his personal life and more might have been shown here.
This is a well-written history of the (I)CWGC, and I am aware that it is not biography of Fabian Ware. But I am left with something of the same feeling as when confronted with the great monuments he created: impressive,commanding, painstakingly democratic but somewhat austere and impersonal, without intimacy. For all that, it is a book I will gladly reread and I may in so doing prove myself wrong.
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on 31 December 2013
This is the definitive account of how the war cemeteries of the First World War came into being and of how they have reflected and affected attitudes ever since. No history of that war is complete without it.
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on 16 October 2013
I was excited when I saw this - Fabian Ware and the IWGC make a fascinating subject and a biog of Ware was long overdue. This, though, reads as if it couldn't decide whether it was Ware's story or a history of the IWGC (which has already been done, and better)- either way it's unsatisfactory and incomplete. How could a book purporting to be about FW dismiss his non-IWGC life in just one sentence? Or fail to mention the date of his death? Anyone reading it would think his work stopped with WW1 - but it continued throughout WW2. Crane seems not to like Ware very much, which diminishes the book's impact - as does his rather florid prose (chiliastic, anyone?). Yes, there are moving passages - about the memorials especially. How could there not be? But despite the good parts, and the heroic nature of the achievement described, this was a disappointment.
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on 15 December 2013
Explains the History of the CWGC in detail. Also written and compiled in easy to read format. A great deat of detail but well put together so that it will now be near me whenever I research any reports that , as a Volunteer Field Worker for the Imperial War Museum. I come across. Thank you to the author David Crane
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on 5 July 2016
Engaging account of the little-known story of Fabian Ware, who almost single handedly got the work of commemorating the World War I dead on the Western Front started and sustained through difficult early years. Takes a rather biaised view of the conduct of the war but this does not detract from the main story.
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on 16 January 2015
I bought this as a Xmas present for my wife, she has been restoring photographic project work from 1980s when she spent summer months for three years in the Somme and Ypres battle field areas, photographing in some of the more unusual formats available then. She is a professional photographer, Fellow of the RPS, and one of the earliest female surrealist photographers.
This book has filled many gaps in her knowledge, and enabled her to really understand how/why the graves are laid out as they are.

If you need knowledge of this area, then read this book. (Loads brownie points as well).
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on 31 May 2014
I had seen this book on the shelves on a few occasions but only flipped through the pages. It looked like an unassuming book, and probably that is why I did not buy it. I am a war grave photographer and eventually decided that I needed to know more about the organisation that created those vast "Empires of the Dead" so eventually bought the book.
It was nothing like I expected, instead it was a riveting read, I could not put it down.
The story of the founding of the CWGC is the main focus of the book, and as such it concentrates on Fabian Ware and the difficult task he had. It explores the quirky personalities of those who worked to create those memorials to the missing and the dead, it talks about the difficulties faced when it came to burying the thousands of casualties from the "Great War". A lot of the symbolism associated with the war cemeteries and memorials is discussed, and the work of those who maintain and care for these creations is also explored.
There was a sense of sorrow in this book, and in parts I found it very emotional. If anything the only real gripe I had was that it does not really go into the casualties of the Second World War and how they found their rest. I would have loved more photographs too, but I do understand the limitations of a book like this.
With the approaching centenary of the First World War it should be compulsory reading, because you come away feeling very humble, and with a whole new insight into the mass slaughter of the young soldiers who became the main focus of Ware and his colleagues.
Thank you David Crane. You created a masterpiece.
It is a wonderful read, and is definitely one of those books that I will return to.
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on 25 April 2015
Quite rightly short-listed for the Samuel Johnson non-fiction book prize, this is a very readable, relatively concise account of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I picked up a copy prior to a visit to the cemeteries of Ypres and would thoroughly recommend it if you're thinking of doing the same; it enriched the visit greatly by providing a context to the cemeteries themselves and how they were created. The political scheming needed to drive the process to completion is also brilliantly handled. Fabian Ware, the force behind the original project, is vividly portrayed - one gets a sense of his energy and charisma, even if his politics were, by 1918, already a reflection of a time past. Thoroughly recommended!
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