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4.0 out of 5 stars An important reminder of something we now take for granted..., 11 Dec. 2013
This review is from: Empires of the Dead: How One Man's Vision Led to the Creation of WW1's War Graves (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Aug 2014 09:26:09 BDT
John Brain says:
A minor point. As Crane explains, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was surely the antithesis of Ware's vision.
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C. Ball
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