Commonwealth War Graves Commission Centenary

Today, May 21st 2017 marks the centenary of the Imperial – now Commonwealth – War Graves Commission.

With the Great War showing no sign of ending and the death toll mounting, burying the dead remained the responsibility of the British Army. But commemorating the ultimate sacrifice of so many men became the permanent responsibility of the new commission, whose draft constitution was approved by the King in Council on May 10th, and finally executed on May 21st 1917. The War Graves Commission was born.

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Its origins were in a small, volunteer Red Cross mobile unit run by Fabian Ware (above) in the first months of the war. Aware that the record of burials was haphazard, that relatives were already enquiring about (and even attempting to visit) the final resting place of loved ones, Ware persuaded the Army to hand over the task of registering and recording deaths and dealing with enquiries to his team. By March 1915 the Red Cross Mobile Unit became the Graves Registration Commission, sanctioned by General Haig, its vital work having ‘an extraordinary moral value to the troops in the field as well as to the relatives and friends of the dead at home.’

But the escalating task of accurately and sensitively recording such information was only one of Ware’s problems. With the end of the war still only a distant prospect, there were administrative battles to fight within Whitehall, with the Ministry of Works which assumed it would have authority over war memorials and cemeteries. And then there was the nature of the cemeteries themselves. The decision not to erect crosses, to bury officers and men together as well as the earlier orders banning the repatriation of bodies were all to cause controversy.

Throughout it all, Ware worked tirelessly to ensure that the lives of all who made the ultimate sacrifice were suitably commemorated. I think he got it right, don’t you?

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Lawrence of Arabia

The story of Lawrence of Arabia is one of the Great War’s most enduring legends. It’s Indiana Jones but for real – shy archaeologist excavating crusader castles in Arabia turns guerrilla leader (on behalf of the British Empire) inspiring Arab rebels to overthrow their evil Turkish masters.

And in doing so, of course, helping to knock Germany’s chief ally out of the war…

The Arab revolt (which began on June 5th 1916) was a long, bitter campaign fought under a variety of commands. Lawrence himself was just one of many British and French military personnel sent to assist the revolt.

His appeal seems to stem from his decision to ‘go native’. Often pictured not only wearing a keffiyeh (headdress) but also an ornate besht (gown) given to him by Prince Faisal, Lawrence – who spoke fluent Arabic – became convinced that he was genuinely advancing the cause of Arab freedom.

After the war he attended the Paris Peace Conference still clinging to the belief that what he’d done would lead to Arab self-rule. But it was not to be. The Sykes-Picot agreement had already divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire between the British and the French.

Lawrence ended the war holding the rank of Lt. Colonel. But, disillusioned with the outcome at Versailles, and in an effort to withdraw from public life he re-enlisted – twice – under an assumed name, serving as either a private soldier in the army or a humble aircraftsman in the recently-formed RAF. He retired to his cottage – Clouds Hill, in Dorset – in 1935 but was killed while riding his Brough Superior motorbike a few months later, on 19th May. He was just 46.

If your image of T.E.Lawrence is Peter O’Toole in dazzling white headdress, blue eyes burning, hands blood-soaked from another mass slaughter then the facts of Lawrence’s troubled post-war life and early death might be something of a disappointment. But when the legend becomes fact, print the legend as it says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And the Lawrence legend certainly lives on.