EMPIRES OF THE DEAD – Review by Chris Buckham

When one travels the battlefields of WW1 and 2 throughout the world, it is very likely that you will come across one of the hundreds of Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s interment sites. Each is laid out identically with a stylized cross and inverted sword overseeing the rows of common gravestones marking the final intermingled resting places of officers and men. They are striking and moving places, stark reminders of the sacrifices and service given by so many to their countries.

What is not well known or remembered is the road that led to the creation of these final resting places; the personalities, drama, anguish and reflection that marked the discussion and national debate surrounding the remembrance of the war dead. Crane has authored a book that lays out in a balanced and insightful way just what were the driving factors behind the debates, how the Commission came to be, the impact of World War 1 on the national psyche of not just Great Britain but the entire Empire, and who were the personalities who navigated the waters of emotion and pride that came to typify discussion.

Central to the success of this program was Fabian Ware. While his name has, to a great extent, been lost to history, it was his vision and drive that saw the concept of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission take root and flourish. Crane traces the role that this remarkable personality played and how his core belief in the unifying power of the British Empire and the debt that it owed its soldiers served as his unwavering guiding light.

For the first time in its history, a war had directly affected all facets of society equally from the highest nobility to the lowest labourer and all in between. The British common man and the Imperial colonies would not be left out of the discussionof how to memorialize the dead. Ware displayed remarkable insight when, in setting up his initial Commission, he included representatives from all walks including senior government and union leaders as well as senior Colonial representatives.

The breadth and complexity of this program was astounding: over 1,300 graveyards in France alone, over 580,000 graves that required exhumation and re-interment and a mandate that literally was worldwide. Additionally, was the necessity to come up with a means of memorializing the tens of thousands of soldiers with no known resting place in such a way as to provide their families with an opportunity for closure and remembrance; this while trying to manage cost, land distribution and artistic difference.

Crane’s book not only relates the story of the development of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, he also captures the mood of the nations as they struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifice that had been made. From the point of view of 100 years later, it is almost impossible to fully grasp the depth of grief and loss that affected every facet of societies; Crane’s book provides a glimpse into that abyss. This is an outstanding book in every way: educational, moving, gripping and above all insightful and wrenching.

Reviewed by Chris Buckham for War History Online

By David Crane
William Collins
ISBN: 978-0-00-745668-0

Major Chris Buckham is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He has experience working with all elements including SOF. A graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, he holds a BA in PoliSci and an MA in International Relations. He maintains a blog of his reviews at: www.themilitaryreviewer.blogspot.com

Chris Buckham

Chris Buckham is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE