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.
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?