Continental Europe is dotted with serene and beautiful cemeteries from the First and Second World Wars. They are also found in the Dardanelles, holding the fallen of the Gallipoli campaign. They are ordered, serene, well-kept, and dignified with the solemnity that supreme sacrifice confers. Tourists now visit them frequently, strolling among the chiseled headstones that sprout like white flowers amid seas of green.
The example of these cemeteries has influenced the character of all other war gravesites and monuments built since the Second World War. We may be tempted to think that the creation of such vast mausoleums was accomplished quickly and easily, and that it was a foregone conclusion once these terrible conflicts ended. But it is not so. It was the persistent labor of one remarkable man who made all this possible. His name was Fabian Ware.
Before we recount his achievement, we must first gain an appreciation of how the dead of Europe’s wars were traditionally viewed. Until the First World War, armed conflict in Europe was mostly a game of professional armies. Mass conscription would only arrive with the advent of the cataclysm of 1914. Before then, professional and mercenary armies maneuvered about the terrain and mauled each other until the appropriate treaties were signed and sealed. The dead were usually shoveled or carted into mass graves with a minimum of ceremony. Civilian populations had little stake in the game of war, because they were not subject to conscription; and the age of war tourism—that is, the practice of visiting battlefields out of curiosity—had not yet begun.
There were some gravesites and monuments from earlier conflicts, of course, but these mostly commemorated officers and titled aristocrats, not regular soldiers. And they were done in an antique, heroic style, giving the viewer little idea of the terrible hardships that fighting men endured. The average soldier remained anonymous and forgotten. The threat of disease meant that their corpses were usually burned or buried quickly. David Crane’s Empires of the Dead (an excellent account of the career of Fabian Ware) quotes the testimony of a woman named Charlotte Eaton, who walked the battlefield of Waterloo in 1815 after the guns had gone silent:
The countrymen told us, that so great were the number of the slain, that it was impossible entirely to consume them. Pits had been dug, into which they had been thrown, but they were obliged to be raised far above the surface of the ground. These dreadful heaps were covered with piles of wood, which were set on fire, so that underneath the ashes lay numbers of human bodies unconsumed.
The American Civil War did see the creation of impressive cemeteries and monuments as a means for promoting reconciliation and dealing with the nation’s grief. But these developments had no influence in Europe. Everything changed with the First World War—the world’s first “total war.” It was a war that involved the conscription of entire nations; among the belligerents, the war directly affected both soldier and civilian. All had a stake in the outcome, and all felt the Shadow of War as a tangible, omnipresent reality.
Fabian Ware was born in Bristol, England in 1869. His education until the age of eighteen was from private tutors, a fact that may account for his independence of thought. He became a teacher himself to pay for higher studies. Enrolling in the University of London, he quickly found it unable to offer the intellectual stimulation he was looking for; and so he set out for the University of Paris, from which he graduated in 1894. He worked as a schoolmaster, and supplemented his income with various government educational posts. In 1901 he left for better opportunities in South Africa; he then worked for a time as the editor of The Morning Post. His career as a newspaper editor was cut short by involvements with personalities and events that do not concern us here; but we can say is that by 1913, Ware had proven himself a skilled administrator, organizer, and diplomat.
When war broke out in 1914, the forty-five-year-old Ware attempted to enlist, but was turned away due to his age. With the help of his connections, however, he was able to secure an appointment with a mobile Red Cross unit operating in the front lines. This would turn out to be a tremendous stroke of luck for him; had he been accepted into the British Army, he might have become just another officer swallowed up by the mud and carnage of Ypres or the Somme. He was also lucky in the sense that his ambulance unit had a degree of independence that few other units enjoyed. Visionaries need both resources and opportunity.
Ware, a sensitive and perceptive man, was moved by the sheer scale of the carnage. No one had ever seen anything remotely like it before. What disturbed him most, however, was the complete absence of a system of recording and registering the names and gravesites of the dead. They were usually dumped in shallow graves, and it was assumed that someone else would be able to deal with the problem later. Ware and his men began to collect information about graves they had encountered with the head of the Red Cross’s Wounded and Mission Department, Lord Robert Cecil. Often it was ghastly work; in many cases the only way to identify a man was to search a putrefying corpse for identification disks. Unexploded ordnance abounded, adding physical danger to the horrors of death. But the gratification was matchless. One of Ware’s men, a man named Broadley, later related this anecdote:
Another and very ingenious method of recording the names of fallen soldiers is by writing their names on a piece of paper and placing this in a bottle. I came across a bottle only a day or two ago with a list of thirty names of men of the Royal Scots killed in action, with a note of the name of the Chaplain (Revd. Gibbs) stating that he had officiated at the burial…[I feel] the proud satisfaction of knowing that I had done some slight honour to one brave man who has died for his country…
This brings to mind an incident when I called at a farm near Meteren and a farmer showed me the graves of two nameless heroes of the Seaforth Highlanders which were in a field. He explained that he had the greatest difficulty in keeping the cows away and added with tears in his eyes that he would give all the money in the world if these brave fellows could have been buried in his back garden instead of a field close by.
Ware’s commitment and diligence soon earned him a reputation. With help from a well-placed officer named Neville Macready, the British Army in 1915 organized the Graves Registration Commission (GRC) to allow Ware’s work to continue. Not only did he have to track down and attempt to record the names and locations of those who had died in combat, but he had to wear the hat of a diplomat as well. His work could not proceed without the cooperation of the civilian and military authorities of France and Belgium. In 1917, with the help of the Prince of Wales, Ware received approval for creation of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC). He would now be responsible for the dead from the entire British Empire, meaning Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
With the end of the war in 1918, the focus was on the creation of cemeteries, ossuaries, and monuments. It is a testament to Ware’s skills as a negotiator and a diplomat that he was even able to persuade the Turks, whose country the British had invaded, to cede land in Gallipoli for around thirty cemeteries and five memorials. Yet the challenges inherent in the sensitive task of building cemeteries were vast. Ware was beset by a thousand questions and difficulties. What form should the headstones take? Should families be allowed to emplace their own? What words should be inscribed on them? How should the religious sensitivities of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus be assuaged? Should the monuments have a religious or a secular tone? Ware tried to establish ground rules from the beginning. In his first general report, Ware made the following recommendations:
1. That the principle of equality of treatment laid down by the Commission should be carried out by the erection over the graves of all officers and men in the war cemeteries abroad of headstones of uniform dimensions, though with some variety of pattern.
2. That each regiment should have its own pattern of headstone…and that regimental feeling should be consulted.
3. That there should be carved on the headstone the rank, name, regiment, and date of birth of the man buried beneath it, and that relatives should be allowed at their own cost to add a short inscription of the nature of a text or prayer, subject to the approval of the Commission.
4. That in every cemetery there should be two central monuments; (a) at the eastern end, a great memorial stone upon broad steps and bearing some appropriate phrase or text; and (b) elsewhere in the cemetery, a cross…
These were some of the requirements that Ware wished to implement. It was difficult work, and in many ways a job that never received the credit that it merited. Ware was hampered, here and there, by the usual obstacles that take the form of petty jealousies and bureaucratic turf-protecting. But he had the support of the king and the public, and that was enough. One of the most moving descriptions I have found of the results of the IWGC’s work is this account (quoted by writer David Crane) from a London Times writer who visited a cemetery near the Somme in 1920:
[It is] the most perfect, the noblest, the most classically beautiful memorial that any loving heart or any proud nation could desire for their heroes fallen in a foreign land. A lawn enclosed of close clipped turf, banded across with line on line of flowers, and linked by these bands of flowers; uncrowded at stately intervals stand in soldierly ranks the white headstones. And while they form as perfect, as orderly a whole as any regiment on parade, yet they do not shoulder each other. Every one is set apart in flowers, every one casts its shadow upon a gracious space of green. Each one, so stern in outline, is most rich in surface, for the crest of each regiment stands out with a bold and arresting distinction above the strongly incised names.
Fabian Ware continued his work even during the Second World War, despite his declining health. He stepped down as director of the IWGC in 1944; but by then he had already done all needed to be done.
When he died in 1949, his own headstone was made to match those of the countless fallen thousands he had in life so honored.
Read more about sacrifice and struggle in Thirty-Seven: