Remembering the War Dead
by James Heartfield
In 1916 Sir Fabian Ware got the Adjutant General to ban all further exhumations and repatriations. The reason for the ban was explained in different ways. Marshall Joffre said that it was a health hazard. Red Cross leader Sir Fabian Ware was worried that the ad hoc repatriations would show that officers and men were not equal in death. Behind all of these claims was the fact that the British Army, like other armies in the combat, would not commit themselves to a general rule of bringing the bodies back. It was not possible, they thought, because of the logistical commitment, because of the cost, and because the mass repatriation of bodies would undermine morale, in the army and at home.
At the end of the war the British government faced a dilemma. The grieving families had no body to bury. Their sons had given up their lives to the British Empire, but they would not even have a grave they could tend. Feelings were running high, and the Government appointed an Imperial War Graves Commission to manage the problem. The War Graves Commission was ‘aware of a strong desire . . . that exhumations should be permitted’. But they dismissed that with the argument that ‘it would be contrary to the principle of equality of treatment’, meaning that the ad hoc repatriations would favour the wealthy. In fact most of the bodies were exhumed, but only so that they could be reburied in tidy lines in France and Belgium.
Though they were painted as selfish rich people, those who wanted their sons brought back were not. Around ninety letters a week landed in the War Graves Commission’s post box asking for repatriation. In 1919 the British War Graves Association was formed by Sarah Ann Smith, whose son Frederick was buried in the Grevillers Cemetery at the Somme. Ruth Jervis wrote to the Commission asking: ‘it not enough to have our boys dragged from us and butchered (and not allowed to say “nay”) without being deprived of their poor remains?’ In a second letter she said, ‘the country took him, and the country should bring him back.’
The one option that the War Graves Commission never looked at was that the Army should bring all the bodies back. The costs — financially and to morale — were just too high. The cost of sending the men to the front was a necessary one, but the cost of bringing them back was not to be considered. In 1924 Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald wrote to Sarah Ann Smith of the British War Graves Commission that it would be impossible to move 800,000 bodies ‘scattered all over the world’.
The 250,000 Africans who lost their lives in the service of the British Army were treated even worse. The British governor of Tanganyika territory told the War Graves Commission that he ‘considered that the vast Carrier Corps Cemeteries at Dar es Salaam and elsewhere should be allowed to revert to nature as speedily as possible’. There is a generic bronze monument to native forces, including the Carrier Corp, at Mwembe Tiyari in Mombasa, but the war grave in Dar-es-Salaam lists only 1843 dead, mostly European soldiers and some of the King’s African Rifles. Where there were war memorials put up for non-white troops, as for the Indian army losses in Mesopotamia, the Nigerian Regiment and the West African Frontier Force only the officers’ names were engraved in stone. An official history of the War Graves Commission regretted that ‘the traditions of the Indian Army . . . paid great attention to the graves of expatriate Britons but little to those of Indian servicemen’. So it was that ‘by 1924 every British grave had a headstone, but nothing had been done to commemorate the Indians’, and when extra funds were released to set about that ‘it was too little and too late’.
The decision not to return the bodies of the dead troops to their grieving families, though still left an emotional hole that had to be filled. Instead of being mourning by their loved ones individually, the dead were to be dragooned into a collective commemoration. Official commemoration of the dead would take the families’ grief and turn it into a collective worship of the war dead, making them a sacrifice to the God of War – or more prosaically, to King George, General Haig and the other chieftains who had sent the men off to be killed in the first place. The case against war had been strongly put. The best argument against the war was the cost in lives. What the official commemoration of the dead did was to take all the grief that might have counted against the war-mongers and turn it instead into part of the case for war. The dead were now called the ‘fallen’ (though most had been struck down). The killing was sanctified as a ‘sacrifice’ — the ‘Greatest Sacrifice’.
‘Scarcely a British family was untouched in some way or degree by the war: to hundreds of thousands came the greatest sacrifice of all’, editorialised the Daily Mail, 11 November 1919. They had been sacrificed to the greater glory of the British Empire. At the first official Remembrance Day, Prime Minister David Lloyd George laid a wreath with his own hand-written note: ‘A token of gratitude to those who died that we might live more abundantly’. It was true that British industrialists enjoyed a massive increase in profits in the war, and Lloyd George like most British Statesmen had investments that paid good dividends. But for most of the ex-soldiers and ordinary men and women of Britain, the years after the war were not ones of abundance, but of more ‘sacrifice’.
This is an extract from Kevin Rooney and James Heartfield’s new book The Blood-Stained Poppy, published this month by Zero.