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.
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.
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.
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.
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
on 29 September 2014
No tour of the battlefields of the two World Wars can omit a visit to at least one Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery. Indeed, with the land being returned to its original uses and being developed, these battlefields are increasingly identified through these cemeteries. The rows of uniform white headstones are at once beautiful yet tragic and represent a tangible legacy of war. The story of how they came into existence is told in Empires of the Dead: How one man’s vision led to the creation of WWI’s war graves.
Before World War I (WWI), little provision was made for the burial of the war dead. Soldiers were often unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave; officers shipped home to be buried in local cemeteries. The great cemeteries of WWI came about as a result of the efforts of one inspired visionary. In 1914, Fabian Ware, at 45, was too old to enlist. Instead, he joined the Red Cross, working on the front line in France. There he was horrified by the ignominious end to the lives of many of the soldiers who, buried hastily, were often lost as the battle lines moved backward and forward over the same ground. He recorded their identity and the position of their graves, and his work was quickly officially recognised, with a Graves Registration Commission being set up. As reports of their work became public, the Commission was flooded with letters from grieving relatives around the world.
The subsequent story of how and why this graves registration work led to the creation of thousands of cemeteries around the world and the CWGC is one of imperialism, faith, grief, guilt, ego, vision, bureaucracy, politics and resources. The story is meticulously researched and well told in Empires of the Dead. And while the end result is simple in concept and physically elegant, the process was far less so. The decision to not allow relatives to repatriate the bodies of relatives back to their homelands – particularly Britain for example – was particularly hard fought and acrimonious; as was the decision for all ranks to receive the same style of headstone.
Interestingly, the Germans followed suit by also establishing cemeteries in France and Belgium – albeit with a distinctly different style and character. Conversely, the French, with dramatically greater losses than the British Empire in WWI, allowed bodies to be returned to families and buried in local cemeteries. Significantly for Australians are some references to the challenges of identifying bodies on the Gallipoli Peninsula four years after the withdrawal.
Having established a standard it was perhaps not surprising that those Allied soldiers killed during WW2 were similarly interred. But it also is worth recognising that since then most soldiers’ bodies have been repatriated back to their homelands. In the end, the thousands of CWGC cemeteries and memorials are a monument to the sacrifice made by the British Empire during these two major wars. It is here that Crane perhaps derived the title for this book. It is somewhat ironic, however, that despite the high price paid, the British Empire collapsed as a result of these wars.
Empires of the Dead includes a few maps and a good number of colour and black and white illustrations. The notes are comprehensive reflecting the significant amount of research Crane undertook. There is also a select bibliography and an index. The RRP represents good value for money.
Coming at the start of the WWI Centenary, Empires of the Dead risks being lost in the rush and perhaps it may have been more fitting to publish it in a few years’ time. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story that deserved to be told.
on 22 August 2014
David Crane describes his book 'Empires of the Dead' as a biography. It is hardly that. For whilst its focus is the work of Fabian Ware, the man whose genius spawned the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, we learn virtually nothing of his childhood, only a little of his upbringing, nothing of his wife and family and no mention of his death.
What we do learn of is Fabian Ware and his lifelong project - to honour the dead of the First World War by driving with relentless determination his creation of the multitude of war cemeteries throughout Europe and beyond which we are so fortunate to be able to visit today - timeless reminders of the sacrifice of our grandfathers. Kipling described this achievement as being greater than the building of the pyramids of the pharaohs, and the way Crane tells it, he may well have been right.
I was attracted to the book both by its subject matter and by its author - whose biography of Robert Falcon Scott is a masterpiece. But I have to say that I did not find this work quite such a satisfactory read. The research is prodigious, indeed, at times it is somewhat overwhelming. I felt that there were many instances where research material held up the flow of the story, branching off at a tangent from the central theme. And on too many occasions, I had to grab the dictionary.
But what was excellent about the book was Crane's telling of how and why the Commission came about, and especially about the way the principle of equal treatment for all regardless of race, religion or social position became a byword of the Commission's work, despite the opposition of many, including the understandable misgivings of relatives who were disbarred from having the remains of their loved ones returned home. Arguably without Ware's single-minded determination, instead of the dignified and beautifully kept resting places that we have inherited, we would have had a conglomeration of the grotesque and unmemorable.
But I would have liked to have learnt a little more of the man himself. Was he human? What were his loves and hates? Did he have feelings? Perhaps there is another book somewhere.
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.
on 3 December 2013
I found this book absolutely fascinating but then I have an interest in the First World War and the War Graves Commission. Some readers might find ideas and opinions put forward by the author annoying if not patronising. I wish I had bought it as a book not for my Kindle as the pictures would have made it worth while.
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.