The Imperial War Graves Commission and the shadow of South Africa

Well, it’s taken a long time to get going. A lot of reading about secularisation in the 20th century, and more recently trying to understand the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the construction of a modern phenomenon – the Commonwealth War Cemetery. It is now so easy to assume ‘that’s how a war cemetery is done’ that we forget that it dates back just to 1917 and the formation of the Commission.

Or does it? Well, going back to the Crimean War and earlier, Other Ranks mostly do not get headstones, and often the war graves are communal ones – the journalist Russell describes a vast trench after the battle of Inkerman (1854) where the piles of British, French and Russian dead were just dumped.

Things really started to change with the second South African War (Boer War) of 1899-1902. Better communications, and the presence of large numbers of part-time soldiers (Territorials as we now call them) who would have been in close touch with families back home, probably created the climate for more interest in the burial of British troops. However, the major influence was the Guild of Loyal Women of South Africa. A passionately Imperialist organisation, run by upper class British ladies including the redoubtable Violet Cecil, it tried to provide a grave marker for as many soldiers as possible, regardless of rank or station in life. The cast iron crosses, with the soldier’s name and the Guild’s motto, ‘For King and Empire’ still exist in many instances. My thanks to Mike Tucker for this example.

LWG cross

But the South African influence doesn’t end there. Violet Cecil was a good friend (later the lover of) Lord Milner, another passionate Imperialist and High Commissioner to South Africa, in charge of reconstruction after the war. He gathered a group of talented and loyal young men around him, amongst whom was Fabian Ware, later the driving force behind the IWGC. Milner’s influence ran deep, both before and after WW1.

Meanwhile, Ware began his great Imperial project of establishing war cemeteries where every casualty would have the same recognition – ‘equality of sacrifice, equality of treatment’. As early as 1914, he approached Frederick Nevil Macready, then Adjutant-General of the British Army in France – but an ex-Boer War commander, who had once been offered a job by Milner (he turned it down). In 1917, Ware brought in Sir Herbert Baker, the leading architect who had spent 20 years in South Africa and had designed the memorial to the dead at Kimberley. Ware invited Rudyard Kipling to be a member of the IWGC, and he became its wordsmith and very effective publicist. Kipling had been a journalist in South Africa and knew all the key players there. When the IWGC project was threatened in 1920/21 by Violet Cecil’s sister-in-law Florence Cecil (wife of the Bishop of Exeter), Ware turned to another South Africa hand – the M.P. Burdett-Coutts who had been a Times journalist there. The Cecils (not Violet, she maintained a low profile in this) used their influence as sons of Lord Salisbury and cousins of Arthur Balfour to publicise Florence’s petition to the Prince of Wales for crosses, not headstones, for those who wished to pay for them.

The matter came to the Commons for debate, and Ware ensured that the Labour M.P. Harry Gosling (a member of the Commission) and Burdett-Coutts (Conservative) lobbied for the IWGC. It was Burdett-Coutts’ speech that finally saw off the challenge and ensured that equality of treatment would be carried through.

Fabian Ware’s powers of organisation, persuasion and lobbying were legendary and well documented. What is less well known is the profound experience of the South African War that he was able to draw on and mobilise through his contacts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: