The Men Who Made the Cemeteries

GRU Cpl
A Corporal from a Graves Registration Unit with an exhumed body. ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via IWM

I am sure that for anyone who has visited the battlefields of the First World War, in particular those of the Western Front in France and Belgium, one of the most vivid memories will be the war cemeteries.  These are looked after and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and serve as a permanent and powerful reminder of the death and suffering that the Great War brought. But I suspect that fewer visitors really think about how the cemeteries came about and how they were developed.

The story starts soon after the start of the First World War and, in large part, is down to the work of one man, Fabian Ware.  He arrived in France in September 1914, too old to serve in the Army, instead he commanded a mobile Red Cross unit.  He soon identified that there was no official process for documenting or marking the location of the graves of those who had been killed.  To fill this void he and his mobile unit undertook the task.  Ware’s work was quickly given official recognition and the unit was transferred to the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915.  As the work of grave registration became known to the public at home, the Commission began receiving letters and requests from relatives for photographs of graves, which it duly began to provide.  As a result, in 1916, the Graves Registration Commission was renamed the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries. Its remit was also extended beyond the Western Front and into other theatres of war including Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  As the war progressed Ware and others became concerned about the future of the graves after the war, which led to the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 (updated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the 1960s).

The work continued through to the end of the war and on into the 1920s with the recovery of bodies, concentration of some of the smaller cemeteries into larger ones and the building of large permanent memorials such as the ones at Thiepval on the Somme and the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Graves Resistration Unit
A Graves Registration Unit in France or Belgium, probably after the end of the First World War ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via the IWM

This work was crucial in helping the grieving process for those hundreds of thousands of families who had lost loved ones.  Some years ago I came across a grave in Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient.  Unlike so many in that cemetery, this one had a name on it, Private James Weir, 31st Battalion, Australian Infantry, AIF.  It also had an intriguing epitaph ‘The Lord Gave And The Lord Hath Taken Away’.  So out of interest I decided to trace Private Weir and to see if I could find out more about him.  In doing so I uncovered a tragic tale, but one that probably mirrored many thousands more.

Private Weir was killed on 27 September 1917, during the bloody Third Battle of Ypres, and was buried in a battlefield cemetery somewhere in the area of Polygon Wood. However, the grave appears to have been lost and even as late as the summer of 1921 the family, in Australia, were writing to the authorities to find to where the grave was. Eventually the grave was located, the body exhumed and concentrated with many others in Tyne Cot Cemetery, and in October 1921 the family were sent photographs of the grave. Nonetheless it is hard in these days of instant communication and rapid travel to imagine the anguish his family went through for four years, not knowing where he was buried.

Weir Grave Register
The Graves Registration Unit’s notification that Private James Weir’s body had been exhumed and reburied in Tyne Cot Cemetery. ©National Archives of Australia.

This week I came across Lincolnshire resident and author Tim Atkinson who is writing a book about the men who stayed behind after the Armistice as part of the Graves Registration Units to search for and recover bodies on the battlefields. Entitled ‘The Glorious Dead‘ the marketing blurb for the book states the following:

‘The book promises to reveal what happened when the Great War ended and the guns fell silent, to tell the story of the battlefield clearances and creation of iconic war cemeteries and to explain why so many men who served – and survived – remained in Flanders amid the ruins of the war they’d fought.

The story follows one of these men – Jack Patterson – as he busies himself doing the Empire’s dirty work. Jack seems not to mind getting his hands dirty, digging graves, living among the death of devastation of the war he and others have just fought. But there’s a secret keeping Jack in Flanders – a secret that only emerges when a visitor to the cemeteries comes searching…. for Jack’s own grave!’

Intrigued by Tim’s (TA) approach I (HM) caught up with him and we had a chat.

HM:  “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

TA:  “I was a teacher for twenty years and then decided to give up full-time work to look after my youngest child, and at the same time start writing,  Since doing so I have had a number  of books published, and my latest venture is ‘The Glorious Dead’.”

HM: “I have read the blurb, but tell me more about the book.” 

TA:  “Well it’s been five years in the making and is the story of Jack Patterson and his comrades who stay behind on the Western Front after the end of the First World War to complete the harrowing and unpleasant task of recovering bodies from the battlefields for burial. The story covers the important years just after the end of the Great War when thousands of troops remained behind to complete this task. It also touches on those who eventually married local girls and became part of Anglo-Belgium and Anglo-French communities looking after the cemeteries through the inter-war period.”  

HM: “Why did you choose to address this subject through the medium of historical fiction rather than a factual narrative?”  

TA:  “The book is principally about the people involved with this undertaking rather than the process.  There are a number of good non-fiction books already published on the subject, including Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil and David Crane’s Empires of the Dead.  And I’m not an historian so didn’t want to cover the same ground less-well.  What I wanted to do was to understand the psychology of these men.  To understand what motivated them to stay behind and complete this task.  In the case of my chief protagonist there is a personal reason and a mystery about him that eventually comes to light but I won’t spoil the story. But the historical fiction approach gave me more scope to do this.”

Serre No3
Serre Road Cemetery Number 3, a battlefield cemetery on the Somme, on an atmospherically overcast day.

HM: “These cemeteries always have a profound effect on people visiting them.  Why do you think that is?”     

TA:  “From Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery, to the smallest battlefield cemetery on the Somme their design is consistent and perfect.  This was an inspired period, from the work of Fabian Ware to establish the Imperial War Graves Commission through to that of the architects such as Blomfield and Lutyens to establish the monuments.  I have been to many of the cemeteries on the Western Front and standing in them I think the overriding impression is of the simplicity of the design and the serenity of the places.  And I think it is this contrast with the horror of the battlefields that really has an impact on people.”

HM: “Your book is being published through Unbound. Why have you chosen this route?”

TA: “Well first it is a very successful model which has had some notable successes.  The one that immediately springs to mind is Philip Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which made it on to the Man Booker long list in 2014.  Secondly I enjoy the interaction with potential readers that this form of publishing allows.  Once subscribers have pledged their support they are given access to ‘the Shed’ an interactive area where they can receive updates from the author and leave comments and thoughts. As a writer it is unusual to connect with readers while engaged in the process of writing.  Unbound offers a great opportunity to open a dialogue with your readers and allow them to help shape your book.”

HM: “Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.  Good luck with completing the book and your quest for support.”      

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries of the Western Front, and elsewhere in the world, are an iconic and important part of the Remembrance of all wars that have involved military and civilian personnel from across the Commonwealth since 1914.  As we move through the Centenary commemorations of the First World War their power to connect us with that War does not seem to diminish, indeed in many respects they are even more powerful today than they ever have been.

Tyne Cot
Tyne Cot Cemetery today.

What I hope I have done in this blog post, and what Tim Atkinson is attempting to do in his book, is to highlight the effort made to ensure the memory and sacrifice of those who died in the First World War was not forgotten.  Initially this was through the efforts of Fabian Ware to institutionalise the burial and commemoration of the dead.  Then later through the physically hard and traumatic work of men, like Tim’s character Jack, to scour the battlefields searching for bodies, and hopefully help to close a chapter for many families such as those of Private James Weir.  As we remember the dead and the wounded throughout the Centenary of the First World War, we should also take our hats off to the men who completed the grisly, but very important, task of making the cemeteries.


You can subscribe to Tim Atkinson’s book ‘The Glorious Dead’ at https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-glorious-dead

 

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