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Art in Strange Places

Controversial Funerary Art in British Empire War Cemeteries (1917-1922)

Raphaël Willay

Abstracts

Cemeteries are places of remembrance and meditation, but also spaces for artistic expression. The shape of funerary monuments can be defined by the deceased themselves before their death or by their relatives after their death, and reflect their life and values. In the aftermath of the First World War, this choice was not made available to the fallen soldiers of the British Empire and their families. The authorities prohibited the repatriation of the bodies and imposed the location and form of their burial through the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), which was specially created in 1917 to develop and maintain the military cemeteries of the Empire. This decision created a great deal of tension within a section of British society, which was hostile to what it considered to be a deprivation of part of its rights. This article will examine the main criticisms addressed by the families to the British authorities. They concern the very organisation of the IWGC, the impossibility of recovering the bodies of the deceased, and the prohibition on giving the graves the desired artistic form, particularly the expression of religious sentiment.

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1World War I (WWI), which lasted from 1914 to 1918, was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, resulting in the loss of millions of lives. The war had a profound impact on societies across Europe, leading to widespread grief and mourning among families who lost their loved ones. The scale of death and destruction created an urgent need for burial and memorialisation of the fallen soldiers. In 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was created in order to design and maintain the final resting places of men and women of the British Empire who died during the war, as well as memorials to the missing, both as a practical necessity and as a way to honour the sacrifice of those who had died. In the introduction to the 2018 Guide to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Victoria Wallace, then Director General of the CWGC, wrote: “These days, the [Commonwealth War Graves] Commission is a well-loved organisation and it’s hard to imagine how controversial its actions were at the outset” (CWGC, x). This raises a central question about the controversies: to what extent was the new type of funerary art in IWGC, now CWGC, cemeteries challenged when it was created?

2Over the last decades, funerary art in British Empire War Cemeteries from the WWI era has been a subject of scholarly interest, particularly since its centenary (2014-2018). Researchers have explored the symbolism and iconography, cultural influences, and artistic choices (individual / collective commemoration, impact of imperial ideology) made during the creation of these commemorative spaces (Gibson and Ward 1989; Van Emden 2011; Crane 2013). This article about the contested artistic choices will enrich the field through the exploration of the social and political contexts during the post-war period by questioning established narratives and highlighting the voices of individuals that have not been adequately represented in the existing scholarship.

3This research is mostly based on letters, petitions and reports available in the CWGC archives and laws published by the Houses of Parliament in the aftermath of WWI. After describing the context and identifying the central reason that led some distressed families to complain and address the Imperial War Graves Commissioners, especially the decision not to repatriate the bodies of the slain soldiers, this article will provide an insight into the work undertaken by the commissioned architects. The motives of the people who contested their work and the Commission’s answers will then be explained, to reveal how little effect the opposition had on the Commission’s decisions and work, and how the problem was settled.

Non-repatriation of bodies

The IWGC: an undemocratic, male-dominated organisation?

4During and after WWI, faced with the death of so many soldiers, the British authorities had to organise hundreds of thousands of burials, often of broken or damaged bodies. It was decided that military cemeteries should be established in locations where soldiers had fought and fallen. As there was no official organisation to oversee interments (and search for the missing) at the beginning of the conflict, the duty was delegated to a British Red Cross Ambulance unit headed by Fabian Ware, a former journalist. His team soon turned into a dedicated unit for the dead under the control of the War Office. It was renamed GRC (Graves Registration Commission), which, in 1916, became the DGRE (Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries) (Crane 32-50, 52-57, 80-81). The following year, the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was created at the request of the army to take over the DGRE’s work at the end of the war. It was established by Royal Charter in May 1917 (IWGC, 21 May 1917).

  • 1 Ruth Jervis added: “without having obtained the wishes of parents [...] the country took him, and t (...)

5However, the composition of the IWGC, also known as “the Commission”, turned into a central argument against it, as this exclusively male organisation emanating directly from the British Crown and Government. Anna Durie, a Canadian mother who lost her son during the war, described the Commission as “the most tyrannical and autocratic body of men that has existed since England lost the North American colonies” (Durie, 2 March 1925). Women’s ire focused not only on the composition of the Commission, but also on decisions its members made. Ruth Jervis, another grieving mother, expressed her dismay, stating, “it surprises me how a commission composed of say a handful of men dare to arrive at these decisions”. She also expressed the determination of women to make things change: “We, Mothers” she wrote “are not going to be cast aside much longer” (Jervis, 1 December 1918).1 This point of contention shows that women’s roles in society were evolving. They were increasingly seeking greater representation and influence, and expected that their perspectives should be adequately considered in decisions relating to burial and memorialisation.

Relatives’ sorrow and anger

  • 2 This practice also included those who “may be buried elsewhere”. The IWGC also had “to complete and (...)
  • 3 See CWGC. “Shaping our Sorrow”.

6One of the main criticisms levelled at the Commission, was its right to deal with the bodies in whatever way they wanted. Indeed, the Commission was entitled to “acquire and hold land for the purpose of cemeteries in any territory [...]; make fit provision for the burial of officers and men of [the King’s] forces and the care of all graves in such cemeteries [...]”2 and to “exercise such powers of exhumation and reinterment as may appear to the Commission to be desirable” (IWGC, 21 May 1917). These cemeteries aimed at providing physical and tangible spaces for collective remembrance, where families, visitors, and communities could come together after the war to pay their respects and remember the sacrifices of the soldiers. In 1919, some features proposed for the design of military cemeteries were made public under Rudyard Kipling’s pen, in a booklet entitled The Graves of the Fallen. The author, who advocated the Commission’s work, asserted that “the overwhelming majority of relatives are content that their kin should lie—officers and men together—in the countries that they have redeemed” (Kipling 16). But many families did not share this point of view. The task, which consisted of removing isolated graves to larger cemeteries, also known as “concentration”, was even harder to understand. But this issue was central to the Commission’s work as a large number of mortal remains were still scattered over the former battlefields or in makeshift cemeteries.3 As a consequence, this practice created greater distress and confusion among families, as the factors affecting the appropriate final disposition of the soldiers’ remains, such as religious belief, ethnicity, or social customs, were at risk of being overlooked.

  • 4 “Now the Americans are negotiating with the French Government for exhumation of their 65,000 dead l (...)
  • 5 Numerous expressions illustrate English women’s ill feeling: “greatest sorrow and still greater dis (...)

7While the American Army generally proceeded with the repatriation of their troops’ bodies to the USA,4 some British families could not accept that their loved ones would remain far from home. In the early 20th century, certain cultural and religious attitudes towards death prevailed in numerous parts of the British Empire: for many, the idea of repatriating bodies to their home countries for burial was seen as a way to honour the fallen and provide solace to their families. As a consequence, many English women wrote to politicians, newspapers or magazines, or directly to the Commission, to express their opposition to the non-repatriation of bodies and share their feelings of sorrow, suffering and incomprehension (Carpenter, 19 February 1919).5 Ruth Jervis wrote about the body of her son:

  • 6 Regarding the process of “concentration” in 1918, Ruth Jervis added: “I was shocked beyond words an (...)

I was hoping against hope that at the end of the war [...] it would be some measure of consolation to be able to have his remains where I could visit them but it seems after such a decision that even that hope is gone. (Jervis, 1 December 1918)6

  • 7 This raised the question of the benefits to parents of a memorial service rather than a funeral ser (...)

8These women resented that they were deprived of their right to decide on what to do with the deceased body of their loved ones, what type of ceremony should take place and how their kin should be remembered. They had to settle for a memorial service at home, not a funeral service.7 In other words, they were not allowed to say good-bye to their beloved.

From personal to collective action

9In May 1919, a petition signed by over 2,500 people was sent to the Prince of Wales. It was launched by Sarah Smith, a Leeds housewife who lost her 19-year-old son in the war. The signatories stated:

It has always been the view of every English family that their beloved dead belonged to them alone. Yet we are not permitted to have the remains brought over [...]. Where possible & where the relatives desire it, is it too much to ask that the bodies may be brought (over?) [...] at our own expense if necessary. We pray Your Royal Highness to grant that the right which has ever been the privilege of the bereaved may not be denied us. (Smith, May 2019)

10Following the petition, those who were in favour of the repatriation of bodies soon created the “British War Graves Association” (BWGA) in 1919. Based in Leeds, it had over 3,000 members by 1922. The wife of Sir William Gascoyne-Cecil, the eccentric Bishop of Exeter (1916-1936), Lady Florence Cecil, became its Vice-President. The couple lost three of their four sons in the Great War; the fourth son was wounded twice but survived. The BWGA was supported by some MPs, including James Remnant, MP for Holborn, who defended their case in the House of Commons in May 1920. He declared:

The dead are certainly not the property of the State or of any particular regiment; the dead belong to their own relations. I am anxious that there should be equality for all, and that the right which is inalienable to every man, the right to do as he likes with his own dead, should not be taken away. Relatives should long treat their own loved ones in their own distinctive way. (HC Debate, 4 May 1920)

11Another prominent figure in the struggle against the Imperial War Graves Commission was the Countess of Selborne, a sister-in-law of Lady Florence Cecil. Before the war Selborne, a staunch Conservative Party supporter, had chaired the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association (1910-1913). In July 1920, she published an article in the National Review, stating that:

  • 8 She added, in a very ironic style: “Even in the matter of these War Graves, the permission to visit (...)

The final characteristically tyrannical decree [...] is that no one is to have the right to move his relation’s body from the national cemeteries. The defence put forward for this is pure Socialism of the most advanced school [...]. There is no beauty in compelling a poor widow who does not take the same view as the majority of the nation to leave her husband’s body in the State cemetery. This conscription of bodies is worthy of Lenin. (Selborne 714-715)8

12By invoking the head of government of Soviet Russia and referencing “Socialism of the most advanced school”, the Countess of Selborne emphasised the perceived authoritarian nature of the IWGC policies. Her opposition to the “conscription of bodies” aligns with a broader critique of socialist principles, where collective interests might supersede individual rights. The detailed account of the controversies surrounding the IWGC’s decisions on burial and memorialisation during and after WWI also demonstrates that the debate involved considerations of democratic representation and personal choice.

Equality, uniformity, monotony?

Appointment of leading architects and designs of grave-markers

  • 9 At first, two Principal architects were appointed: Edwin Lutyens and Hebert Baker: the latter was p (...)
  • 10 The working party paid a visit to the Graves Registration Unit from 9-18 July 1917. The party also (...)
  • 11 Recommendations were made to the Commission “In the hope of contributing [...] towards the solution (...)
  • 12 The material used could be “stone or metal or metal plates let into stone or hard wood”. In the mou (...)
  • 13 The working party considered that the towns and villages in England were “the proper places for suc (...)

13The Charter of Incorporation of the IWGC also gave power to Commissioners “to permit or to prohibit the erection by any person other than the Commission of permanent memorials” in cemeteries (IWGC, 21 May 1917). In order to design and formalise the cemeteries, they made use of the services of three world-renowned architects: Herbert Baker, Edwin Lutyens and Reginald Blomfield.9 They were chosen not just for their technical expertise but for their ability to convey powerful symbolic messages through their designs. The layout of cemeteries, the arrangement of grave markers, and the inclusion of other structures were to contribute to the artistic representation of memory and sacrifice. As a result, the Commissioners showed the public their concern and belief in the vision of commemorating in perpetuity every man and woman who gave his / her life during the Great War. In July 1917, a working party, including Lutyens and Baker, visited a large number of graveyards on the Somme.10 Following their visit, they made recommendations to the Commission.11 They agreed on different features for the future necropolises: cemeteries were to be bounded by a wall, a building on which the names of the dead would be inscribed should be erected, and a plan of each cemetery and a roll of the dead should be displayed. They also agreed on the construction of a chapel in the larger village and country cemeteries, a shelter in the medium-sized ones, and a cross in the smaller ones. Apart from Lutyens, the men stated that a cross in all cemeteries should be “the dominating feature as a mark of the symbolism of the present crusade”. They also mentioned “that every individual grave should be marked” (Baker, Lutyens, Aitken, 18 July 1917), and that the headstones should be realised in permanent material.12 The focus on individual headstones aimed at emphasising the human cost of war and the importance of remembering individual lives, highlighting the significance of individual stories and experiences in the broader narrative of conflict. So, one might have expected that these features, which guaranteed individual, fair and lasting treatment of the graves of the fallen, would be reassuring to families in grief. But the working party also stated that “no private crosses or memorials should be erected in the cemeteries in France”,13 a piece of advice that would also soon be challenged by the IWGC contesters.

14In 1918, as Vice-President of the IWGC, Fabian Ware appointed Sir Frederic Kenyon, the Director of the British Museum and President of the British Academy, to the role of architectural adviser. He was to head a committee that would make decisions regarding design matters. The internal report, also known as the Kenyon Report, which he produced in November 1918, laid the foundations, as the title suggests, on “How the cemeteries abroad will be designed”. Based on the 1917 Somme working party recommendations, the key principles of the future Commission’s work were then affirmed or reaffirmed. One of them was equality of treatment: “no distinction should be made between officers and men lying in the same cemeteries in the form or nature of the memorials” (Kenyon 1918, 3). In other words, the report indicated that all the graves would be marked by headstones of the same material, uniform in height, width and shape. This artistic choice aimed at signifying the idea of equality and unity in death, emphasising the shared sacrifice and camaraderie of those who died in the war. But the practical aspects of designing and maintaining military cemeteries were also certainly influenced by economic considerations, the IWGC’s emphasis on uniform headstones being partly driven by the need for efficiency and cost-effectiveness in the face of the massive task of dealing with hundreds of thousands of graves. On another note, as the period after WWI was marked by efforts to reconstruct national identities, it can also be assumed that the design of the military necropolises and the commemoration of fallen soldiers aimed to create a sense of collective identity and remembrance throughout the British Empire and was intended to play a crucial role in shaping the British narrative, that underscored the idea of a unified nation standing together in the face of adversity.

Is uniformity of headstones equality?

15The way of commemorating the fallen in a uniform way was experienced as harrowing by some, especially those who were demanding the return of the bodies of their relatives. A lot of families felt that the denial of individual expression through personal grave markers detracted from the uniqueness and personal identity of their loved ones. Not only were they deprived of what they considered as their right to bury their beloved one at home, but they were also forced to accept that all grave-markers would be identical.

16Seeking to make the Commission change its point of view, Viscount Wolmer advocated the difference between equality and uniformity. In May 1920, he stated in Parliament:

Uniformity is not and never can be equality. You might as well say it was equality to order that every man should wear boots of number five size, or that everyone should live in a particular style of house. That would not be equality […]. They claim equality for all. That is a claim which we who oppose the present policy of the War Graves Commission endorse to the full. We demand equality for all [...]. There is an absolute distinction between uniformity and equality, and, indeed, an antagonism between them, which those who support the attitude of the War Graves Commission almost entirely miss. (HC Debate, 4 May 1920)

17Later that year, in her July 1920 article, the Countess of Selborne also strongly expressed her disagreement on uniformity of headstones:

  • 14 Countess Selborne added: “The history of the War Cemeteries is a very interesting one from a politi (...)

Now here there is shown the true Socialist spirit. The rights of the individual were swept away by a stroke of the pen. [...] [T]he House [of Commons] captivated by the Socialist ideal, the State as opposed to the individual, refused to interfere. [...]. The common conditions of State action are very obvious. Absolute uniformity is a necessity. Every tombstone will be like every other tombstone. (Selbourne 1920, 713-714)14

18The Countess of Selborne’s views on the disposition and uniformity of headstones reflect a strong opposition to what she perceives, once again, as socialist ideals influencing the policies of the IWGC. Her commentary suggests a deep concern about the encroachment of state power on individual rights, and she frames her arguments within the context of a political struggle between individualism and collectivism. Her critique extends to the role of the state, as she accuses the House of Commons of being “captivated by the socialist ideal”, prioritising the state and refusing to interfere in matters of individual choice. Her disdain for the absolute uniformity imposed on tombstones can also be seen as a broader criticism of state-mandated conformity, in contrast to the diversity and individual expression she believes should be allowed in memorialising loved ones.

19But the Commission obviously had the support of the soldiers themselves. In the House of Commons, in the May 1920 debate, William Burdett-Coutts quoted a letter from a certain Colonel Lewin, who gathered his troops during the winter 1917-1918 to obtain their opinion on the proposals of the Graves Committee. The uniformity of design was what appealed most strongly to all:

That the fellowship of the War should be perpetuated in death by a true fellowship in memorial was the unanimous and emphatic desire of everyone, officer and man. Death, the great leveller of all rank, was very near to those men at the time, and their deliberate and expressed wish was that, as they fell, so they should lie, and their memory be perpetuated in like form throughout. (HC Debate, 4 May 1920)

20Later in the same debate, Colonel Burn confirmed this:

I have had letters from, and, what is more, I have had conversations personally with relatives who have lost their sons or their husbands in the War, and I have not heard one single individual say that he was not delighted that all the graves, whether of a field marshal or of a private soldier, are of similar design, and that those men who died in the same cause lie side by side. (HC Debate, 4 May 1920)

21The decision not to repatriate bodies and to impose uniform headstones was driven by the need to maintain a sense of equality among soldiers. For some officials, the uniform design was viewed as a way to emphasise a sense of unity and comradeship among the fallen soldiers, regardless of their rank or background. They also saw the creation of military cemeteries and memorials as a means of national remembrance and collective honour for the sacrifice of the soldiers.

Headstones versus crosses: paganism versus Christianity?

  • 15 While most of the decisions emanated from the IWGC, a whole paragraph in The Graves of the Fallen b (...)
  • 16 Mercedes Bern-Klug explains that “for many centuries, grave markers have served as the primary phys (...)
  • 17 “Countless hundreds of mothers and wives”, “thousands of wives & mothers” (Carpenter, 19 February 1 (...)
  • 18 “It is an insult to our feelings and to the honoured dead” (Carpenter, 19 February 1919).

22A third criticised element was the design of grave-markers15 as the similar rounded headstones felt too neutral for many.16 Indeed, by depriving the relatives of the right to choose the size, the design, the material to be used, in other words the expense, religious sentiments could not be expressed and the personality of the individual could not be represented. Even worse, “numerous women”17 felt insulted18 at the idea of putting uniform headstones over the soldiers’ graves. One of them even mentioned that they were similar to “stones we would put over a favourite dog’s grave” (Carpenter, 19 February 1919).

23Moreover, the headstones contrasted with the previous temporary wooden crosses quickly erected by soldiers during the war, but also with the French and American grave markers which took the shape of crosses too. In 1919, Lady Florence Cecil presented another petition to the Prince of Wales, declaring that:

It was through the strength of the Cross that [those who gave their lives to preserve the lives and liberty of others] were enabled to do so. It is only through the hope of the Cross that most of us are able to carry on the life from which all the sunshine seems to have gone. (Cecil, 1919)

  • 19 He added: “Surely it would be more restful to the eye to have here and there a cross instead of the (...)

24This statement reveals how the use of crosses as grave markers was embedded in British culture and how deep the religious significance they held for some British people, symbolising sacrifice, redemption and faith. The petition gathered 8,000 signatures. And again, in the House of Commons, Mr Turton advocated the same wish to erect crosses instead of headstones: “It is not a question with us of artistic taste or any question of sentiment. [...] It is a question with us of absolute religion.”19 For them, funerary artistic design was first and foremost tied to religious sentiments, rather than national values.

  • 20 The most common symbol featured on IWGC headstones was the Christian cross. However, this does not (...)

25However, the war involved soldiers from diverse religious backgrounds and if the Commission forbade the erection of crosses as grave-markers, families were given the right to specify the slain soldier’s religion on the headstone,20 in an attempt to create a way of commemorating that respected the beliefs of soldiers from different faiths. But a cross carved on a headstone was not sufficient for the IWGC’s Christian challengers. In a letter written by Lord Hugh Cecil, a brother of the Bishop of Exeter, in January 1920, the Conservative Party MP even described the cemeteries as “anti-Christian”. He wrote that the Cross “in such a connection is ambiguously religious and scarcely distinctively Christian” (Cecil, 21 January 1920). Sir Frederick Kenyon defended the Commission’s work in a letter sent back to him a few days later. He wrote:

  • 21 Frederic Kenyon added: “Consequently, the most conspicuous monument in the cemeteries should, in my (...)

The cemeteries are designed in a Christian and not a pagan spirit [...], it is not a matter of artistic design for me [...], I regard our Empire as a predominantly Christian Empire and the cause for which we were fighting is the cause of Christ.21

  • 22 “Church of England, Roman Catholic, Church of Scotland, Free Church, Baptist, Wesleyan, Congregatio (...)
  • 23 “You must be aware [...] that it is the incised cross, and not the cruciform stone, which is charac (...)

26Also, in order to make sure that the choices made by the war cemeteries architects would be understood and acceptable to the Christian communities, Kenyon had previously consulted “the representatives of all the principal Churches whose members lie in the cemeteries [...] and it was approved by all with hardly a qualification; most cordially by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Bourne”.22 This statement reveals that the decision to use headstones instead of crosses had varying impacts within the Christian community. Kenyon also reminded the recipient of his letter that a Cross was carved on every headstone (unless families expressed a wish to the contrary) and that the incised cross is characteristic of the earliest Christian monuments, not the cruciform stone.23

  • 24 Such as, for example, “Too far away your grave to see, but not too far to remember thee”, “gone but (...)
  • 25 The number of letters was estimated at 63 by the Countess of Selborne in July 1920. “So we are to h (...)

27The headstones bear individual inscriptions: “the inscription carved on each headstone will give the rank, name, regiment, date of death, of the man buried beneath it” (Kenyon 1918, 10) and, at last, families were provided with a means of conveying their thoughts and beliefs as greater personalisation was partly allowed by the Commission in the form of a personal inscription. These epitaphs ranged “from literary and Biblical quotations to hymns, from meditations on abstract virtues to informal addresses to the dead”.24 This possibility given to families to add a religious sentence on their relative’s headstone could be interpreted as a means to lighten the burden of those who wanted to give the grave markers the shape of a cross. But the inscriptions “were initially limited to 66 characters, and a fee of 3½ pence per letter was charged for British Army casualties” (CWGC, “Shaping our sorrow”).25 As a consequence, the Commission soon faced accusations of hypocrisy because only the wealthy could afford a substantial inscription. Also, while the Australian and the Canadian governments decided to pay for the inscriptions, and whereas the New-Zealand government forbade all inscriptions on New-Zealanders’ headstones, the British government maintained the IWGC policies for UK citizens, creating greater discontent among their opponents. A letter sent by a woman to Viscount Wolmer affirms:

  • 26 The name of the woman was not revealed by Viscount Wolmer (HC Debate, 4 May 1920).

I do not propose to accept their invitation to add anything to what they choose to put upon the stone, as I do not wish to desecrate my son’s memory by countenancing in any way the hideous and unchristian memorials which they propose.26

28The controversy between headstones and crosses reflects the complex interplay between personal belief, cultural attitudes towards death and remembrance, and the attempt to foster a sense of national unity. The preference for headstones over crosses reflects the beliefs about what values and symbols the British Empire nation should uphold.

Conclusion

  • 27 Kipling adds: “You see we shall never have any grave to go to. Our boy was missing at Loos. The gro (...)

29In conclusion, the IWGC’s vision of uniform headstones finally endured, but it faced resistance from families who wanted more individual expression and personalisation for their loved ones' final resting places. These controversies surrounding the IWGC were deeply rooted in the historical context of WWI, the cultural attitudes towards death and remembrance, national identity, religious diversity, and economic constraints. The architects appointed by the IWGC, including Herbert Baker, Edwin Lutyens, and Reginald Blomfield, who were tasked with designing the military cemeteries and grave markers, had to strike a balance between practicality, aesthetics, and the Commission's guidelines. They believed that a unified design would create a sense of cohesion and equality among the graves, emphasising the idea that all soldiers, regardless of rank, were equally worthy of remembrance. They aimed to create dignified and lasting memorials that could withstand the test of time. While they may have appreciated the significance of personalised memorials, they were constrained by the practical challenges of creating unique designs for hundreds of thousands of graves. As a consequence, in spite of their efforts to elaborate features for cemeteries that would display the nation’s respect for the dead soldiers, their art seemed insufficient and unable to lighten some families’ burden of “the irreparable sorrow which they will carry to the end of their days” (HC Debate, 4 May 1920), much to the dismay of the Imperial War Graves Commissioners. During the debate a letter received from Rudyard Kipling is quoted in which he writes: “I wish some of the people who are making this trouble realise how more than fortunate they are to have a name on a headstone in a known place”.27

  • 28 “These men, be they officers or rank and file, who fell, died with the same courage and the same de (...)
  • 29 Viscount Wolmer, for example, regretted that the House of Commons was never consulted on this matte (...)

30The MP quoting Kipling was William Burdett-Coutts, a respected Conservative politician who had already been sitting in the House of Commons for 35 years, and who strongly advocated the Commission’s work at Westminster. He was supported by other MPs, including former Liberal Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition, H. H. Asquith, who also agreed on the Commission’s choices.28 This great Parliamentary debate, which was seen as the only way to put an end to the controversy,29 allowed Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War and Commission’s chairman whose support for the IWGC had not been guaranteed, to set out his vision of the post-war cemeteries enduring in perpetuity (CWGC 2018, 23-38 ; HC Debate 4 May 1920). He concluded that for practical reasons, to achieve the task entrusted to the IWGC in a reasonable time, there was no other solution than erecting uniform headstones:

This task which is now entrusted to the Imperial War Graves Commission can only be achieved within a reasonable period of time if standardisation plays a large part in the production of the tombstones [...]. I was at first very anxious to lend any influence I might possess with the Committee in the direction of creating a cruciform headstone as an alternative, but I was convinced by further study that really this was impracticable. Either the stone so finished would cost more than the present uniform stone, or else it would be of a flimsy character which would, in a few years, be defaced by time [...]. I must, however, for a moment dwell upon the practical aspect of the case. This is a unique undertaking from the point of view of its size and scale and the conditions under which the work is to be carried out. In France and Flanders alone there are 500,000 graves to be dealt with. The means for making tombstones in this or any other country are limited—local and limited—and they are more or less proportioned to the ordinary rate of mortality. (HC Debate, 4 May 1920)

  • 30 She reproached, for example, that the lettering on the stones could not be deciphered (Smith, 8 Apr (...)

31Eventually, with the help of Winston Churchill in 1920, later supported by the pilgrimage King George V performed in May 1922 to necropolises in Belgium and France (Fox 4-96), Fabian Ware and Frederic Kenyon’s vision prevailed. Of course, this final decision increased some families’ sufferings, as Sarah Smith expressed in a letter she sent to the Prime Minister in 1924: “We are being treated with great harshness and with far more cruelty than the bereaved of other countries” (Smith, 8 April 1924). She went on struggling with the Government,30 but she was left with no choice. She had to accept the funerary art as it was decided by the IWGC and designed by its architects.

32The clash between the IWGC and bereaved families, which challenged traditional notions of grief and mourning, highlights the complexities surrounding the commemoration of war casualties and the role of burial sites as spaces of remembrance and national identity formation. The headstones do not just reflect aesthetic decisions made in the early 20th century. They convey political viewpoints, religious beliefs, cultural ideas and personal feelings. Finally, the “biggest single piece of work since any of the Pharaohs”, as Kipling called the Commission’s work, has left a lasting artistic and architectural legacy. The uniformity of headstones has become a distinctive feature of British military cemeteries, visually representing the equality of the Empire soldiers in death. Many countries and organisations have since adopted similar practices of creating military cemeteries and memorials with standardised designs to honour fallen soldiers. Since then, these designs, which are characterised by simplicity, solemnity, and focus on individual names, have been praised for their beauty, simplicity, and emotional impact.

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Durie, Anna. Letter written to Major-General Sir Fabian Ware, Vice-Chairman of the IWGC, 2 March 1925.

Fox, Frank. The King’s Pilgrimage (An Account of King George V’s Visit to the War Graves in Belgium and France). London: Third Millennium Publishing, 1918.

Gibson, Edwin, T. and Ward, Kingsley G. Courage Remembered (The Story behind the Construction and Maintenance of the Commonwealth’s Military Cemeteries and Memorials of the Wars 1914-1918 and 1939-1945). London: HMSO, 1989.

Hansard. “Imperial War Graves Commission”. HC Debate 4 May 1920 vol 128 cc1929-72. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1920/may/04/imperial-war-graves-commission

Heffernan, Michael. “For ever England: The Western Front and the politics of remembrance in Britain.” Ecumene 2:3 (1995): 293-333.

IWGC Royal Charter of Incorporation, 21 May 1917.

Jervis, Ruth. Letter written to the IWGC, 1 December 1918.

Johnson, David A., and Gilbertson, Nicole F. “Commemorations of Imperial Sacrifice at Home and Abroad: British Memorials of the Great War.” The History Teacher 43:4 (2010): 563-584.

Kenyon, Frederic. War Graves (How the Cemeteries Abroad will be Designed). London: HMSO, 1918.

Kenyon, Frederic (Sir). Letter written to Lord Hugh Cecil, 3 February 1920.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Graves of the Fallen. London: HMSO, 1919.

Morris, Mandy S. “Gardens ‘for Ever England’: Landscape, Identity and the First World War British Cemeteries on the Western Front.” Ecumene 4:4 (1997) : 410-434.

Prost, Antoine. « Les Cimetières Militaires de La Grande Guerre, 1914-1940. » Le Mouvement Social 237 (2011): 135-151.

Saunders, Nicholas J. “Excavating Memories: Archaeology and the Great War, 1914-2001.” Antiquity 76:291 (2002): 101-108.

Saunders, Nicholas J., and Cornish, Paul. Contested Objects: Material Memories of the Great War. London: Routledge, 2009.

Selborne, Maud Palmer, Countess of. “National Socialism in War Cemeteries.” National Review 75:449 (July 1920): 713-715.

Smith, Sarah. Petition for the repatriation of British bodies, May 1919.

---. Letter published in Rothwell Courier and Times, 7 November 1919.

---. Letter to the Prime Minister, 8 April 1924.

Van Emden, Richard. The Quick and the Dead (Fallen Soldiers and their Families in the Great War). London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.

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Notes

1 Ruth Jervis added: “without having obtained the wishes of parents [...] the country took him, and the country should bring him back” (Jervis, 1 December 1918).

2 This practice also included those who “may be buried elsewhere”. The IWGC also had “to complete and maintain records and registers” (IWGC, 21 May 1917).

3 See CWGC. “Shaping our Sorrow”.

4 “Now the Americans are negotiating with the French Government for exhumation of their 65,000 dead lying in France” (Smith, 7 November 1919).

5 Numerous expressions illustrate English women’s ill feeling: “greatest sorrow and still greater disgust”, “I speak plainly as I have a right to do being one of many mothers who have been called upon to sacrifice their only child in the defence of our country is there no limit to the suffering imposed upon us is it not enough to have our boys dragged from us and butchered are not allowed to say nay without being deprived of their poor remains and refused a visit to their graves”, “It is cruelty in the extreme” (Carpenter, 19 February 1919).

6 Regarding the process of “concentration” in 1918, Ruth Jervis added: “I was shocked beyond words and grieved more than I can say as I read the decision of the Imperial War Graves Commission re. the excavation of the remains of our brave boys and the refusal to allow those remains to be brought home to their native countries” (Jervis, 1 December 1918).

7 This raised the question of the benefits to parents of a memorial service rather than a funeral service. Dawson, Santos and Burdick explain that they were deprived of “(1) public recognition that a death has occurred; (2) a framework to provide support to those most affected by the death” (Bern-Klug 2023).

8 She added, in a very ironic style: “Even in the matter of these War Graves, the permission to visit them should at once be withdrawn, as it is quite certain the possessors of wealth will visit them a great deal more often than the poor. Flowers should not be allowed to be planted on the graves. The rich will be able to do this far more freely than the poor. And why should it only be the dead who are brought under the levelling order? Why should the living rich be allowed to live in large houses when the poor can only afford cottages, ride in motors when the poor must walk?” (Selborne 715).

9 At first, two Principal architects were appointed: Edwin Lutyens and Hebert Baker: the latter was particularly noted for his civic buildings in South Africa and New Delhi, where he collaborated with Lutyens, and the new Bank of England in London. In 1918, a third Principal Architect, Reginald Blomfield was appointed. He designed the first three war cemeteries of the Commission. He was specialised in the design of country houses and the author of many books on architecture. The Commission was also advised by Arthur Hill, the Assistant Director of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, while Rudyard Kipling, already known for his famous works, The Jungle Book (1894) and Kim (1901), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, and whose own son had fought in the war, became the literary adviser, the voice and the advocate of the Commission’s work.

10 The working party paid a visit to the Graves Registration Unit from 9-18 July 1917. The party also included Aitken, Director of the National Gallery. The issues were discussed with General Ware, Colonel Messer and other officers (Kenyon 1918, 5-6).

11 Recommendations were made to the Commission “In the hope of contributing [...] towards the solution of the growing number of problems with which the DGRE is faced (Baker, Lutyens, Aitken, 18 July 1917).

12 The material used could be “stone or metal or metal plates let into stone or hard wood”. In the mouth of the working party members, “these war-time graveyards” were to become “a model for the treatment of cemeteries at home and in France” (Baker, Lutyens, Aitken, 18 July 1917).

13 The working party considered that the towns and villages in England were “the proper places for such memorials and that steps should be taken for the dissemination of this point of view when deemed advisable” (Baker, Lutyens, Aitken, 18 July 1917).

14 Countess Selborne added: “The history of the War Cemeteries is a very interesting one from a political point of view, leaving aside the sentimental and personal questions which are involved [...]. The cross in each graveyard will be exactly the same as that in every other graveyard. The supreme monument, the 10-ton stone with its mendacious inscription will be repeated 1,500 times” (Selborne 1920, 714).

15 While most of the decisions emanated from the IWGC, a whole paragraph in The Graves of the Fallen by R. Kipling is dedicated to “Suggestions from the Public”. The author stated: “there is room and welcome for suggestions of every kind from the public throughout the world whose servants the Commission are [...]. There are points, among others, upon which the Commission would be grateful for expressions of opinion”. But, the two examples proposed for suggestions from the public (entrances to cemeteries, monuments to the missing) seemed to exclude grave-markers (Kipling 18).

16 Mercedes Bern-Klug explains that “for many centuries, grave markers have served as the primary physical reminder of a life lived” (Bern-Klug 2023).

17 “Countless hundreds of mothers and wives”, “thousands of wives & mothers” (Carpenter, 19 February 1919).

18 “It is an insult to our feelings and to the honoured dead” (Carpenter, 19 February 1919).

19 He added: “Surely it would be more restful to the eye to have here and there a cross instead of the monotony of a countless sea of headstones” (HC Debate, 4 May 1920).

20 The most common symbol featured on IWGC headstones was the Christian cross. However, this does not represent the number of confirmed Christian casualties, because where the religion was unknown the cross was used as a default emblem (CWGC, “Shaping our sorrow).

21 Frederic Kenyon added: “Consequently, the most conspicuous monument in the cemeteries should, in my mind, be the Cross - the Cross of Christ’s Sacrifice with which one would wish to associate the Sacrifice made by the men who lie beneath it” (Kenyon, 3 February 1920).

22 “Church of England, Roman Catholic, Church of Scotland, Free Church, Baptist, Wesleyan, Congregationalist” (Kenyon, 3 February 1920). Cardinal Bourne served as Archbishop of Westminster from 1903 to 1935.

23 “You must be aware [...] that it is the incised cross, and not the cruciform stone, which is characteristic of the earliest Christian monuments, and that the cruciform headstone is relatively modern and has only quite recently [...] become common” (Kenyon, 3 February 1920).

24 Such as, for example, “Too far away your grave to see, but not too far to remember thee”, “gone but not forgotten”, “Da, was da a ffyddlon” (Good, good and faithful servant. Matt. 25:21), “Que son âme repose en paix par votre miséricorde, ô mon dieu” or “The spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccles. 12.7).

25 The number of letters was estimated at 63 by the Countess of Selborne in July 1920. “So we are to have purely State cemeteries, with the individual limited to a phrase of sixty-three letters which he may have inscribed on his relation’s tombstone” (Selborne 1920, 714).

26 The name of the woman was not revealed by Viscount Wolmer (HC Debate, 4 May 1920).

27 Kipling adds: “You see we shall never have any grave to go to. Our boy was missing at Loos. The ground is of course battered and mined past all hope of any trace being recovered” (HC Debate, 4 May 1920).

28 “These men, be they officers or rank and file, who fell, died with the same courage and the same devotion and for the same cause, and they should have their names and their services perpetuated by the same memorial” (HC Debate, 4 May 1920).

29 Viscount Wolmer, for example, regretted that the House of Commons was never consulted on this matter: “I very deeply feel it unfortunate that this Debate has to take place at all, and I think it might have been avoided had the matter [the design of cemeteries abroad] only been brought to the House at an earlier stage when the appointment of the War Graves Commission itself was first made” (HC Debate, 4 May 1920).

30 She reproached, for example, that the lettering on the stones could not be deciphered (Smith, 8 April 1924).

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References

Electronic reference

Raphaël Willay, Controversial Funerary Art in British Empire War Cemeteries (1917-1922)Miranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 18 April 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/57887; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.57887

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About the author

Raphaël Willay

Maître de conférences

Université du Littoral Côte d’Opale (ULCO) UR 4030 HLLI


raphael.willay@univ-littoral.fr

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