Fabian Ware (left) with the Prince of Wales, 1932
Fabian Ware (left) with the Prince of Wales, 1932 © CWGC

Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves, by David Crane, William Collins, RRP£16.99, 304 pages

“Vitalisers are few and far between in the drab world,” wrote Violet Markham of Fabian Ware, the former newspaperman who was placed in charge of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Markham, an educational reformer, recalled a man with “a gift all his own of raising any subject on to a plane where the dross falls away and only gold remains”.

In Empires of the Dead, which has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, the biographer David Crane sets out to disinter a forgotten reputation. Operating largely behind the scenes, Ware got things done on a spectacular scale and, in so doing, determined how subsequent generations have perceived the sacrifice of what his generation called the Great War. Before 1914 there were only a handful of British war graves overseas; by 1918 there were hundreds of thousands. As Crane writes in this pithy, tightly argued book: “A war that had been fought on a hitherto unimaginable, industrial scale had been commemorated in kind.”

Little is known of Ware’s early life. Born in 1869, he grew up in Bristol among the Plymouth Brethren, an austere Calvinist sect. His education was interrupted by economic necessity after the death of his father, and he would be forced to abandon a London degree before finally managing to pay his way through a baccalaureate in Paris. Then, after a miserable period as a teacher, he made his name in 1900 with the publication of the first of two books on educational reform.

The following year he left for South Africa, where he fell under the spell of Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner, and helped organise education in the Transvaal in the teeth of a bigoted Boer clergy. It was the fusion of his evangelical upbringing with Milnerite imperialist zeal that was to define his character thereafter. Bound up with his driven nature was a conviction of the need to subsume the individual within the collective effort.

The next phase of his career was back in Britain as editor of the Morning Post, a lacklustre Tory newspaper that he infused with almost unseemly vigour, campaigning for universal conscription to prepare for an inevitable war with Germany. When that war came, Ware, who had by then been forced out of his editorial post for ruffling too many feathers, took up a new role as commander of the Mobile Ambulance Unit of the Red Cross.

This was to be his moment of opportunity. For the job of the unit, as things unfolded, was not merely to ferry the wounded away from the battlefields but to search for the missing and to mark, register and safeguard the graves of the fallen. Ware’s unit, writes Crane, “made the decisive difference to the way that Britain’s dead were recorded”.

With a love of France born during his Parisian university days, Ware was well suited to negotiating with French officialdom. He persuaded the French chamber of deputies to pass legislation permitting the expropriation of French land for cemeteries, and also secured control over the future maintenance of these cemeteries by agreeing that the empire would assume the financial burden thereof. Subsequently, when the Imperial War Graves Commission was created by a Royal Charter in May 1917, Ware was made vice-president to the Prince of Wales, and held this post until his retirement in 1948, a year before his death.

Ware had to resist influential aristocrats who wished to have their sons’ remains brought home to a family burial plot; the Anglican establishment, which wanted crosses everywhere; and generals who wanted their victories glorified. Officers were to be interred alongside lesser ranks, and the headstones were to be without special adornment and discreet about religious affiliation since the cemeteries included Hindus, Muslims and Jews as well as Christians. Shrewdly, Ware recruited the poet Rudyard Kipling, whose son was among the missing war dead, as the commission’s wordsmith.

The Imperial War Graves Commission was its own little empire, ever ready to fight off the rival claims of the Office of Works and the Treasury. Ware was answerable to the Dominion governments as well as to Whitehall (much later, “Commonwealth” would replace “Imperial” in the commission’s name) and this helped to insulate him against bureaucratic interference. By sleight of hand, he also took over responsibility for the great memorials to the missing.

In the penultimate chapter, Crane is particularly good at reading the spiritual rhetoric of these architectural monuments. He shows how the academic competence of Reginald Blomfield’s Menin Gate is topped by Edwin Lutyens’s sublime Thiepval Arch, making a strong case too for the emotional impact of Herbert Baker’s Tyne Cot Memorial near Passchendaele.

Sir Fabian Ware, as he became, was undoubtedly a visionary – Markham, again, said that to meet him in the mid-1920s was to be confronted by one’s own youthful self. But idealism would not have sufficed. As Crane points out, he also had “an eye for the main chance, a politician’s instinct for popular movement, [and] an intuitive sense of the zeitgeist”.

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