Sunday, February 23, 2014

war graves… yes, war graves

I’ve just finished reading a book about war graves of WW1.
It was brilliant.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “sad café man hits all time low in his quest to find new interests”.
Actually, you’d be SO wrong!
In this centenary year since the start of WW1, I’d already done a fair amount of research into my grandfather’s war experiences and so this book provided wonderful, fresh insights into the devastated and grief-stricken world of that time.
My grandfather Frank Walker was just 17 when joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in April 1914 (the minimum qualifying age was 19). He transferred to the Royal Field Artillery on 1 July and entered the “Theatre of War” in France/Belgium on 19 August as one of the first members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – just a fortnight after Britain had declared war on Germany.
He survived.
The book (“Empires of the Dead” by David Crane) tells the extraordinary (and forgotten) story behind the building of the British+Commonwealth war cemeteries – largely due to the efforts of one visionary, 44 year-old, volunteer ambulance commander called Fabian Ware. He had been horrified by the ignominious treatment of the dead in 1914 and began to record the identity and position of each grave.
He was born in Clifton, Bristol (there’s a coincidence!). He was “a social radical in conservative clothing”; for five turbulent years he’d been the “erratically brilliant, ‘warmongering’ editor of the right-wing, imperialist Morning Post”.
I’m not so sure I’d have liked him (mild understatement)!
From arbitrary and adhoc (and purely voluntary) beginnings, Ware was able to become a driving force in the origins of the Imperial War Graves Commission. I have to admit that, whilst I’ve always been impressed and rather humbled by the images of immaculately-kept war cemeteries, I hadn’t actually given any thought to how they came about. But then you (suddenly, in my case) realise that, of course, there were thousands of soldiers dying and someone had to organise things in a proper and appropriate manner (in the event, there were over 580,000 British dead and the Commission had more than 23,000 burial sites under its control!).
Ware was a truly remarkable man. The book describes him thus: “For a fierce idealist and visionary, he was an unusually skilled politician; for a born autocrat, he was a smooth performer in committees… and a natural leader”.
Although I’ve seen a number of war memorials (in this country), I’ve never visited any of the numerous cemeteries in France and/or Belgium. After reading this book, I feel I need to do just that.
It’s hard to think of more potent advocates of peace and futility of war than the existence of the hundreds of thousands of massed graves of those who didn’t survive.
The author, Davis Crane, is an eloquent and very gifted writer (and passionate about the subject) and, at times, I found the story incredibly moving. The book contains some parliamentary extracts of the time (when politicians were arguing about policies for burying the war dead) and from various letters written by soldiers or grieving parents/wives.
I’ll end with this powerful extract from a letter sent home by soldier Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain’s fiancé:
“Let him who thinks War is a glorious, golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid faith as inspired the priest of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been his ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting, half crouching, as it fell, perfect but that it is headless… and let him think how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into foetid heap of hideous putrescence”.
Roland Leighton, himself, was dead by Christmas 1914.
Photo: Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres

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