EMPIRES OF THE DEAD – Review by Mark Barnes

By David Crane
Published by William Collins
ISBN: 978-0-00-745665-9

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

After he was killed on the 23rd of August, 1915, my great uncle Les went on a journey from the front line at Hooge down the Menin Road and across the battered city of Ypres to a small cemetery on the Dickebusch Road in Vlamertinghe. It is a distance of just a few kilometres from where he and two mates met their fate to what is now a pleasant spot backing on to grazing land where cows munch away in all weathers. Divisional Cemetery is unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. It must be one of the smallest designed by the great Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect synonymous with our commemoration of the war. There are no obvious great heroes in the serried ranks of the dead; the best known plot is a mass grave of Yorkshiremen killed in a gas attack on Hill 60 in 1915.

My great-grandparents were sent cards with photos of his resting place by the graves registration people whose organisation grew into one of the triumphs of the war – the Imperial War Graves Commission.  Like so many Edward and Helen Louisa Barnes never visited their son’s grave but they took comfort in the care given to him in death defined by a fine headstone, on which they could leave some words, standing in pleasant well maintained surroundings. Indeed their choice of prose appears in the recent “On Fame’s Eternal Camping Ground” by Trefor Jones, so it obviously made an impression –At Once the Roar of Battle the Next in Peace With God. Les is just one of hundreds of thousands with a grave on the Western Front. He is there for eternity and all the effort to keep him that way stems from the vision, energy and willpower of one amazing man. His name is Fabian Ware.

Ware was a trenchant imperialist infused with the notion of a bond between the peoples of the greatest empire ever seen. He was a journalist and an administrator. He had travelled and experienced the world and all this built in him the energy to do something for the increasing numbers of dead as the Great War progressed. He took a disparate group of graves registration units and forged them into the Commission we know and admire.

He used all his guile to take on the pillars of British society – church, state, press and aristocracy to create the situation we have today – cemeteries across the battlefields of the world where all are treated equally and with reverence. Places where class and privilege are as nothing compared to the greater vision of true commemoration. Coal miners rest next to earls with the same pattern grave without distinction. Religion and nationality are just details. There is a unity in death which evokes the whole spirit of empire that Ware craved. His vision is light years away from the world we know today and is often at odds with it and yet he got it absolutely right.

David Crane’s superb account of Fabian Ware and the birth of the Commission is a classic. It takes us to the heart of the creation of our most tangible point of reference with our kin who fought the Great War – the cemeteries and memorials spread near and far. They keep the people who died for us real, and perhaps in some ways, alive.

Mr Crane delves in to the minds of Ware and the others who made all this possible – architects, engineers, horticulturists, artists and administrators. We see into the lives of those whose job it was to recover and record the dead and keep them safe – how odd that sounds. The contributions to the enterprise of Rudyard Kipling and Edwin Lutyens provide extra colour and their influence is immense. The knotted politics along the road to the Commission’s charter are unravelled. All that we see today falls in to place, from the incredible Menin Gate to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey via any particular place you hold in your heart.

The distinguished journalist Robert Fox reviewed this book and correctly points out that unlike much of the Great War output swamping us it is “mercifully short”. This might influence you. Mr Crane gets across all we need to know with a brevity and purpose forged in great writing. He does not linger over the dead or balk at Ware’s outdated vision with the modern gift of hindsight. This is all as straightforward as it is enthralling.

The Commission’s work stretched to two world wars. I remember reading the journal of an American student who, on her visit to Normandy a good while ago, was immensely impressed with the feat of Overlord. Like many of us it was not the event itself which found her but the remains of the Day of Days; its memorials and cemeteries. Quite rightly she felt immense pride for the achievements of her own land, its victory, strength and sacrifice. Nowhere in all of Calvados is this better illustrated than the sublime setting of the US cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer. This huge, majestic place in its overwhelming perfection has an impact that never dims. It is an iconic place. And yet our student found much to admire elsewhere and it was in a British cemetery that it all came together for her. She liked the graves with their regimental connections and inscriptions from home. They were personal and set the tone of a collective and yet individual cost for which we are forever in debt.

John McCrae spoke for them when he cajoled  “We are the dead..and if you break faith with us who die we shall not sleep” and drew us in to the tragedy of Flanders Fields. They are an army still but they stand on perpetual guard from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and from Chatham or Tynemouth to the corners of the Earth. The men that fought and died together are as one, but the dead collectively or otherwise remain unique. We commemorate them as people – not as automatons or ciphers of the politically manipulated histriography of the world wars we see today. The cemeteries at Bayeux and Ranville are as one with any you care to name in Flanders or on the Somme. Though wars apart, the spirit and sense of purpose that makes them what they are is as tangible in Agira in Sicily as it is at Tyne Cot.

Major-General Sir Fabian Ware brought something good out of the intense bleakness of war and this wonderful book allows a relatively unknown hero of his age to come back to us. There is no statue of him but his towering monument is the Commission he founded; still going strong and fighting the good fight.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.