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Comrades in Death

John Gibney

Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves, by David Crane, William Collins, 290 pp, £16.99, ISBN 978-0007456659

In December 2013 Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British prime minister David Cameron visited a number of memorials in Belgium administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), including the largest of their cemeteries, Tyne Cot in Belgium, which holds the graves of 11,956 British and Commonwealth soldiers (8,369 are unidentified). At the centre of the necropolis is a simple, stark memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens: a “stone of remembrance”, or, as Lutyens himself put it, “one great fair stone of fine proportions” that could stand “as equal monuments of devotion” across the world, and which were to be inscribed with “some fine thought or words of sacred dedication”. The latter were ultimately chosen by Rudyard Kipling from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “their name liveth for ever more”. It is a standard memorial erected by the commission, to be found, as its architect envisioned, across the world. And if Irish readers wish to see one for themselves they need go no further than the National War Memorial at Islandbridge in west Dublin. (Another standard CWGC memorial found in cemeteries such as Tyne Cot, Sir Kenneth Blomfeld’s “Cross of Sacrifice”, is to be unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery later this year.)

The CWGC was founded in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission (the name changed in 1960). Its brief was to provide and maintain memorials to those soldiers killed in the British and Commonwealth armed forces, initially in the First World War. The figures for its remit are staggering: it administers 1,700,000 graves from both world wars in 23,000 locations worldwide. Half of these sites are in the UK, and since the British withdrawal from southern Ireland in 1922 the graves of the approximately 5,700 servicemen it commemorates in the twenty-six counties have been maintained by the Office of Public Works.

How did this mammoth enterprise come into being? The answer to that question is the subject of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead, recently shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, and one of the vast array of books on the Great War that have begun to appear since the end of last year. It is, as the author suggests, “the history of an idea and not the biography of an individual”. But the reason for this disclaimer is that the idea whose origin it charts is inextricably linked to one individual: Fabian Ware (1869-1949), a former editor of the right-wing Morning Post who had also served as a colonial official in the Transvaal, and who in 1914 was leading a volunteer ambulance unit in France on behalf of the Red Cross. An increasingly large portion of this work was given over to locating and identifying the graves of soldiers who had been killed. Such endeavours found a sympathetic hearing from General Neville Macready (of whom more later), and by 1915 Ware’s activities were given official sanction. The Imperial War Graves Commission was formally created in May 1917, and Crane’s book offers a fascinating insight into how it slowly grappled with its remarkable, and unprecedented, task.

The “Great War” revolutionised warfare. But it also revolutionised the manner in which its military victims were to be remembered. British military practice was to bury their dead where they had fallen, which potentially posed a range of administrative and hygiene problems (the French, on whose soil so many British soldiers came to be buried, at one point seriously considered creating huge crematoria behind the western front to immolate corpses, and the British army was eventually forced to ban private exhumations on health grounds). The unprecedented industrial warfare of the First World War, with vast armies sweeping back and forth across Western Europe before settling into the infamous stalemate of the trenches, ensured huge numbers of casualties. But the numbers of dead did not correspond to the number of bodies: the Menin Gate, famously derided by Siegfried Sassoon, records nearly 55,000 names of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. For a generation of families, this was almost a new form of death. A loved one may have been killed, but assuming that a body existed, it lay in an area that a poor family might never visit. The circumstances of death might be veiled by officialdom. News of the death might take weeks to arrive. How was a family to reconcile itself to the loss of a loved one in what were almost abstracted circumstances?

The common denominators were service and death, and Ware was adamant that the dead would be commemorated equally, irrespective of class or creed. There was to be no repeat of the repatriation of the body of WE Gladstone’s grandson William, whose family used their considerable clout to ensure the return of his body. But not every family could be so lucky; for Ware, how could such discrimination in death be justified? In his view it could not be, and his insistence on this core principle ensured that as the work of identifying and interring the dead began in earnest after the armistice, it provoked ferocious opposition from the Church of England, politicians, and the bereaved themselves, not to mention the eternally vigilant mandarins of the Treasury. Social inequality was not the only issue with which the fledgling commission had to grapple. A cross could hardly be used to mark the graves of the vast number of Muslim and Hindu troops who had fought in the Commonwealth and Dominion armies; a standardised headstone, secular and egalitarian, would mark them all. In an almost ruthless deployment of state authority, the commission was to be the sole arbiter of the monuments to the dead and their meaning: architects such as Lutyens and Blomfeld were commissioned to design them, and Kipling (whose son was killed serving in the Irish Guards, and never found) became its literary adviser, devising and authorising the inscriptions, including one that, for many, sums up the horror and tragedy of the First World War: “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God”.

That inscription can be seen on headstones in the Republic of Ireland, where there are approximately 3,800 war graves from the First World War, with another 1,900 from the Second World War. Over twenty nationalities are thereby represented on Irish soil, many, if not most, of whom were the casualties of naval engagements. There are substantial clusters of war graves in Donegal (many for those killed when the troop carrier Laurentic hit mines off Malin Head) and in Cork (for victims of the sinking of the Lusitania by a U-Boat). The largest concentration in Ireland is in Grangegorman Military Cemetery, located off Blackhorse Avenue in Dublin 7 and containing over 613 graves, 130 of which relate to the sinking of the Leinster (again by a U-Boat) off Dublin on October 10th, 1918: British, Irish, Canadian, and ANZAC troops rest in Irish soil. Yet Grangegorman also contains graves that hint at the reasons why the commemoration of the First World War has traditionally been problematic in Ireland, such as the grave of Corporal James Headland of the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, “killed in action during [the] Irish Rebellion 24th April 1916”.

Despite his egalitarian impulses, Fabian Ware was an imperialist who cherished the hope that the shared sacrifice of the war, exemplified by the vast ranks of the dead interred by the commission, might yet serve as a means of reconciling increasingly obvious differences between the constituent parts of the British Empire. This was a fundamentally political impulse, one that, ironically, was not going to resonate in much of what was then the United Kingdom. The issue of commemorating the Irish dead of the First World War was and is complicated by the struggle for independence from Britain with which the war overlapped, and which came to take greater precedence in the culture of independent Ireland. Such tensions were foreshadowed from an early stage. In July 1919 a victory parade took place in Dublin to mark the concluding of the Treaty of Versailles, but this was boycotted by members of a group calling itself the Irish Nationalist Veterans Association who, at a meeting in the Mansion House a few days earlier that was attended by perhaps three thousand people, made clear their unwillingness to become involved in these official celebrations in protest at what they described as “the coercion of this country”. In 1919-21 the two-minute silence at 11am on November 11th was specifically enforced by British security forces such as the “Black and Tans” and Auxiliary Division, who were themselves often veterans of the war ‑ a gesture that was hardly likely to have bred an appreciation of what the silence was supposed to stand for. The relationship of nationalists and republicans to the Great War was perhaps more complex then is allowed, and more understandable that it might first seem. True, ex-servicemen in Ireland were often viewed with hostility and suspicion by republicans. Yet how can one explain the fact that some veterans of the Easter Rising of 1916 joined the British army after 1916, or that at least one member of the IRA – Martin Doyle, who is also buried in Grangegorman – joined that organisation having been awarded the Victoria Cross for service in the Royal Munster Fusiliers?

The memory of the Great War was intensely politicised in Ireland after 1922; but the dead were tactfully excluded from the arguments. In the 1920s many republican leaders stated that their objection was not to the commemoration of the war dead on November 11th; their objection was to what they viewed as the jingoism and glorification of imperialism that was seen to accompany it, in the form of the ostentatiously offensive behaviour of Trinity College students and the overt militarism of the British Legion (issues that also vexed the Garda). The stance of such republicans was echoed in the debate over where to place a national memorial to the dead of the Great War. The prospect of erecting a war memorial in Merrion Square was dismissed by the Free State minister for justice, Kevin O’Higgins, who had lost a brother in the war but who went on to point out that such a memorial located beside Leinster House could be misleading: ‘No one denies the sacrifice, and no one denies the patriotic motives which induced the vast majority of those men to join the British Army to take part in the Great War, and yet it is not on their sacrifice that this state is based, and I have no desire to see it suggested that it is.”

The Great War might not have been central to the identity of the new state, and its commemoration undoubtedly attracted hostility, but the neglect of the memory of the war was not confined to republicans. It was a cross-party and indeed, cross-border initiative. Much is made – rightly – of the significance of the war to Ireland’s Protestant community, yet in 1925, at the unveiling of the cenotaph in Belfast, no representative of the 16th (Irish) Division was invited by the Stormont government (despite invitations being extended to, among others, representatives of the Italian Fascist Party). The omission was rectified in the following year, but in Belfast in 1925 was the legacy of the Great War to be recast as that of a Protestant sacrifice for a Protestant people?

Scholars such as Jane Leonard have made the point that to uncritically assume that the memory of the war was subject to wholesale neglect in independent Ireland is to deny considerable evidence to the contrary. The Free State government had no problem in participating in commemorations of the war outside its borders; the largest monument to military service of any description inside its borders is the National War Memorial at Islandbridge in Dublin, built in the 1930s under both Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil governments. Eamon de Valera was supportive of the project and had planned to formally open the memorial in 1939, but this was postponed indefinitely due to the outbreak of the Second World War (restrictions on Armistice Day also applied in the UK).

Even apart from the Islandbridge memorial, huge Armistice Day parades assembled in Dublin throughout the 1920s and 1930s; the British Legion expanded; sales of poppies vastly outstripped those of Easter lilies (indeed, the latter were inspired by the former). It would seem that the restrictions imposed during the Second World War, and later, the tensions generated by the outbreak of the Troubles, put paid to ostentatious commemoration of the First World War in the southern state. But in the immediate post-independence period, while groups such as the IRA attacked Armistice Day events, large numbers of the Irish public were turning up to participate in them; far too many for Armistice Day to be written off as some sort of exclusively Protestant phenomenon. The timing, nature and extent of the neglect of the memory of the First World War in Irish life needs to be investigated fully; a more complex reality remains to be probed. Yet it does seem that, regardless of the disputes prompted by the memorialisation of the war, the war dead themselves were not being unceremoniously roped into the argument.

General Macready had championed Fabian Ware’s proposals in 1915, and later served as the British general officer commanding in Ireland from 1920 onwards. Among the issues he was forced to deal with as the British withdrew from southern Ireland was the upkeep of war graves in the embryonic Free State; Macready’s hope was that this would be taken over by the IWGC. Yet Ireland posed particular problems, largely deriving from the nature of the War of Independence. Given that the commission’s timeframe for commemorating the dead of the First World War (those killed “in service” or “causes attributable to service”) ran from August 4th, 1914 to August 31st, 1921, might the IWGC end up marking the graves of British military and paramilitary personnel – such as certain members of the Black and Tans and Auxiliary Division – killed by the IRA in the War of Independence?

Ireland was not very high on its agenda, as the commission’s greater obligations on the continent took precedence. Ware himself had no problem with commemorations in Ireland, though he anticipated hostility on the part of some bereaved families, not to mention anti-Irish elements (Sir James Allen, New Zealand’s representative on the commission, feared that the IGWC might end up taking care of IRA graves, given that it looked after some German war graves). Equally, how would the new Free State government deal with the embarrassing reality of an imperial organisation potentially commemorating those killed while trying to suppress the independence struggle?

The Cosgrave government declined membership of the commission on financial grounds, but by 1928 had hit upon a compromise: the Office of Public Works would administer the war graves in Ireland, effectively on behalf of the commission, who would liaise with the state and who would deal with the families. And so the IWGC and the Irish state discreetly went to work, in an arrangement that continued after the Second World War. The dead remained neutral, and the graves were generally respected. Postwar neglect was evident by the 1960s (some of this was simply caused by depopulation and social change), but in the 1970s there were instances of vandalism against the backdrop of the Troubles. That also ensured that Irish governments of all hues saw little mileage in looking after the war graves or war memorials.

In recent times there have been unseemly attempts in the UK to appropriate the legacy of the war by figures such as Michael Gove. The debates over its meanings and legacies are, in early 1914, being eagerly revived on the other side of the Irish Sea. Yet the human cost of the war continues to command respect in the UK; there is a striking consensus on that issue that stands in stark contrast to the divergent meanings that are extracted from the war. Ireland might do well to bear that in mind, as its war dead wore British uniforms. In 2013 the centennial commemorations of the 1913 Lockout struck a notable chord amongst members of the Irish public; far more of our ancestors lived in a slum than fought in the GPO. And far more of them joined the ranks of the British army; the 1914 commemorations will surely strike a similar chord in Ireland on demographic grounds alone, whether one’s ancestor was a nationalist who wanted to fight what he viewed as the worse of two evils, or was a loyalist doing his duty as he saw it, or simply a poor man seeking to feed his family and thus turning the army into his trade. But the dead of the war, and their graves, sometimes seem removed from the wider issue of remembrance in Ireland. Perhaps they should not be: as King George V stated in 1922, “can there be more potent advocates of peace on earth … than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war?”. David Crane quotes this in his book, noting that “the speech may have been the King’s, the words [Rudyard] Kipling’s, but the sentiments were [Fabian] Ware’s”. Given that they were uttered by the British monarch, and crafted by a writer who largely detested the Irish (for unionists he made an exception), one can forgive an Irish audience for dismissing these as platitudes. But perhaps we should overlook the messengers to concentrate on the message: that in the midst of these looming commemorations, we should not lose sight of the unquestionable horror of the “Great War”.

Empires of the Dead is a lively and fluent book, and an excellent and readable introduction to how the dead of the war who fought in the armies of Britain and the Commonwealth have come to be commemorated in the postwar world. There are some occasional glitches as regards local detail, and it would surely have benefited from a far more sustained comparison with how the war was remembered in other countries (though this is by no means ignored). A more telling issue is that, given the centrality of Ware to Crane’s book, the early chapters seem unsure of themselves in places: is this just the history of an idea or is it really a biography of Fabian Ware? And indeed, very often Crane’s treatment of his central protagonist is breathless and adulatory. Yet this is a shrewd and humane book: Crane ensures that the human suffering at its core of its subject remains at the core of his narrative. In revealing the tangled origins of the IWGC/CWGC, it acts as a salutary reminder of the human cost of what is to be commemorated over the next four years. This is an excellent work of (popular) history; one that Irish readers might do well to read and to learn from.

John Gibney is content manager for the Decade of Centenaries website, an initiative of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in association with History Ireland:




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