From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
In December 7th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 100, host Theo Mayer spoke with Dr. Glyn Prysor and Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a British organization dedicated to honoring the war dead of Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations from the First and Second World Wars. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: As we've talked through the history of World War I over the last few years, the casualty figures are staggering. Millions dead, sometimes tens of thousands in a single day of a single battle. Some eight million soldiers died in combat or went missing in action. Now, that's just the combat figures. That doesn't include those who died from disease or accident. For many combatants, their dead lay in a foreign country, posing a particular challenge for England and America, who had bodies of water in between their home-front and their war-front. Next week, we'll be speaking with a representative from the American Battle Monuments Commission about how America took on this challenge, but first this week, we're going to take a look at how the United Kingdom has dealt with this incredibly important work. For that, we're joined by Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and Dr. Glyn Prysor, their Chief Historian. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.
Dr. Glyn Prysor: It's a pleasure to be here, Theo.
Theo Mayer: Let me start with you, Dr. Prysor. When was the commission established, and was there a wartime as well as a post-war role?
Dr. Glyn Prysor: Well, yes there was. In fact, what was then called The Imperial War Graves Commission, was formally established by Royal Charter in May 1917; in fact, at one of the darkest moments of the First World War for the British Empire, a time when actually the prospect of victory seemed very far away. But actually, it's roots go back until the very beginning of the conflict, and particularly to a man called Fabian Ware who had gone over to the Western Front in France with a unit of Red Cross personnel. It became clear to him that actually there was no formal organized system for marking and registering the graves of British soldiers who had lost their lives in that early fighting. He put pressure on the military authorities to try and get a system in place, and eventually the military took on his idea, and it became an imperial project. In 1917, the King gave his royal charter to found this organization, which today is known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It started its work during the war itself. At the time, something was just beginning to try to make sure that all of those from across the British Empire who'd served and who'd fought and died in the war would be honored after the end of the fighting.
Theo Mayer: Now I understand that Rudyard Kipling was deeply involved in the formation of the commission. What was his role?
Dr. Glyn Prysor: As I said, it's really important to think of this as an imperial body. This was about the contributions from people across the British Empire, and Rudyard Kipling at the time was a key figure. In many ways, he was the poet of Empire. Well known for books like The Jungle Book, Kim, and of course the famous poem "If." Really someone who encapsulated many of the messages, the values of the British Empire at that time, and it was felt that he would be the perfect person to explain what the War Graves Commission was doing, because at the time it was a very new, a very unique endeavor. The idea that people from across the British Empire would be honored equally, regardless of where they came from. That was particularly important of course, for places like India. Many Indian soldiers had come to serve on the Western Front and many other theaters of war, supporting the British Empire's war effort. So who better to tell this story, to convince people of the importance of this approach than Rudyard Kipling, who was so famous across the world, and he was used by the commission as what was then called a literary advisor. He would write in newspapers, he would write short pamphlets, books to explain to people what was going on, what the plans were for their loved ones who had fallen and died during the war, how they would be honored. But also he would advise on some of the inscriptions. It was he who came up with one of the most famous inscriptions that we have on the graves of those who couldn't be identified. It just says, “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God.” That ability to encapsulate something timeless in those few words, I think now ensures those places seem to us as very, very fitting. Another of course were the words he chose from the Bible, for what we call the Stone of Remembrance, a secular altar, a monument in our larger cemeteries, "Their name liveth forevermore." I think more than anything else, that really encapsulated what the War Graves Commission was trying to do.
Theo Mayer: So, switching over to Peter, both the US and the UK approaches were very egalitarian. Seeking equal treatment of officers, enlisted men, men of different races, and so forth. Could you speak to that?
Peter Francis: Yeah, certainly. It's probably difficult for those of us who've grown up with remembrance of the war dead to understand what a revolutionary concept it was in 1917. In the very first minutes of the very first commission meeting, there was this wonderful line that talks about no distinction should be made between officers and men regardless of their military or civil rank, their color, their race, their creed, their religion. At the time, it caused a huge amount of fuss because it had practical considerations for the form of remembrance. It meant that the commission would use a headstone rather than a cross to mark the graves of the war dead, because we were dealing with so many different faiths. But it also meant that the bodies of the dead would not be brought home, they would be buried where they fell, in this comradeship of death, equality of treatment. It was felt only the very wealthy could have afforded to bring their dead home, and that just wouldn't be right. So people got very, very cross that the commission seemed to be imposing, particularly on the people that perhaps had suffered most, the mothers and the widows of the dead themselves, and we have some heartbreaking documents in our archive here in our headquarters in the UK. Letters from grieving mothers who've lost three or perhaps even four sons asking us, “Please allow me sir, to bring my boys home.” This forms an essential theme of our new online exhibition which explores this creation of the organization, but through the various stages of grief that people were going through at the end of the conflict.
Theo Mayer: This question is to either of you, so we can start with you Peter. What were some of the biggest challenges and dangers, frankly, of getting your war dead gathered, identified, and honorably interred?
Peter Francis: Perhaps the biggest challenge was that nobody had ever done anything quite like this before, so there was no budget, there was no template from which to work. So even, for example the decision that, “What do you do if you can find or identify the body of an individual?” Well again, to us it seems common sense. You put their name on a memorial to the missing. Yet that really was a decision that vexed the commission. There was talk about producing fake, for want of a better word, headstones in the military cemeteries, but Fabian Ware felt that would mislead people. So it's the practicalities of remembrance had to be worked through. Also, of course the sheer scale that the British Empire was dealing with, with approximately 1.1 million war dead. Some of the challenges in some of those places, there was still unrest. Turkey for example in the Middle East, and in France and Belgium of course, this was a devastated landscape. We have some fascinating items in our archive, again from the very early stuff, of the Commission talking about just how hard it was to live and work amongst those conditions. We have some other strange accents of the commission today, people who married into local communities and considered themselves Brits, but now have strong French or Belgian accents when they work for us. So it's an interesting thing that we managed to overcome. Of the building of the program itself, to quote Rudyard Kipling was, “The biggest single work since the pharaohs, and they only worked in their own country.” The last memorial wasn't finished until 1938, and then of course we had to do it all over again just one year later.
Theo Mayer: The commission has cemeteries all over the world, including in areas of upheaval like Syria. How do you maintain all of those graves and markers, especially considering the ravages of time, changing geopolitics, new conflicts, and so forth?
Dr. Glyn Prysor: I think it's important to remember that this work has been going on for 100 years. We had a centenary in 2017, and the commission's charter talks about perpetuity, that we will care for these places forever, and that makes it a very long game. As conflicts and wars, changing environmental conditions, changing personnel, and of course the disruption of the Second World War, another challenge of marking and maintaining graves in many different areas from the first one. From the remote jungles of Burma through to northern Russia, South America, you name it. We have cemeteries and memorials in 23,000 different places in over 150 different countries and territories. But the fact that the commission has the ability to look and plan for the long term is the critical thing. If there is a war, even if it takes 10 years to resolve, the commission was always able then to come back in slowly, diplomatically, start to reconfigure and maintain those places. We're just starting at the moment to be able to go back into places like Iraq. No grave is too far for our teams, and it's really important to us that nobody is forgotten, no matter whether they have a single grave on a remote island, or whether they're in one of the big cemeteries on the Western Front.
Theo Mayer: Are you now repatriating the bodies, or are they still being buried where they fell?
Dr. Glyn Prysor: Well, our remit ended at the end of Second World War. So our remit is to do with the war dead of both world wars. The policies of the British Ministry of Defense in particular, have changed. The same is true of many of our commonwealth partners. But for those war graves, even in remote places, our first priority is to try to maintain them as best we can, regardless of the difficulties. We have some fantastic teams all over the world doing that work. Some of them work for us on a contractual basis. Many of them are part of our family, and they have been for generations. It's a family business, and many of them feel it's a vocation, it's a personal duty to care for those cemeteries. For us, that makes it a very, very special bond. So when we bear that long game in mind, we won't be forgetting these places, and when the time is right and we can get people in safely, that's what we'll do.
Theo Mayer: Well gentlemen, thank you very much for coming in. That's a wonderful program.
Dr. Glyn Prysor: Thank you, absolute pleasure.
Dr. Glyn Prysor and Peter Francis are with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Learn more about the commission and their work at the links in the podcast notes.