It is exactly 100 years ago today that the British government gained sovereignty ‘in perpetuity’ over small pockets of French territory – corners of a foreign field which were rapidly becoming what are now the iconic Allied war cemeteries.
On December 29, 1915 the French National Assembly passed a bill giving Britain ownership of land to be used for the burial of British war dead, as a ‘free gift of the French people for a perpetual resting place of those who are laid there.’
Thanks largely to the tireless efforts of one man, the dead were now guaranteed a permanent final resting place on the soil they had given their lives to defend. Today, there are over 2,000 war cemeteries in France, maintained by over 500 gardeners and still managed by the organisation founded by ex-newspaper editor and Red Cross volunteer, Fabian Ware – the Commonwealth (or, Imperial as it was then and as it remained until 1960) War Graves Commission.
It marked a sea-change in attitudes to the deaths of ordinary soldiers. In previous conflicts the fallen had merely been buried in communal graves with few, if any, individual memorials. Only in the Boar War was an attempt first made to bury individual soldiers in their own, marked grave.
But just as a grateful – and horrified – nation was facing up to its responsibilities in respect of those making the ultimate sacrifice, the scale of the slaughter between 1914 and 1918 was creating its own problems. Burial was almost always hastily conducted, often under gunfire; records of soldiers’ graves and burial sites were seldom systematically maintained.
Ware – a fluent French-speaker thanks to his time as a journalist in Paris – took it upon himself to systematically record the growing number of battlefield cemeteries on the Western Front and then to negotiate their permanent establishment as British war cemeteries. Although many troops were still simply buried where they fell and many other bodies simply vanished in the mud, at attempt was made for the first time to accord each soldier – regardless of rank or class – the dignity of a proper burial.
That the interment was to be – and largely remain – overseas was a practical as well as a principled decision. The rapidly rising death toll meant that attempts at repatriation were impossible. Officers began to express a desire to be buried with the men they’d led into battle; private soldiers would remain alongside comrades with whom a bond often stronger than family ties had been forged in the heat of battle.
It is an attitude perhaps best summed up by Rudyard Kipling, the IWGC’s literary advisor, who said:
‘… whatever his individual position as a civilian may have been, when a man is once in the Service, it is for his regiment that he works, with his regiment that he dies, and in his death he wishes to be remembered as one of the regiment.’