FABIAN WARE AND THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION

The name of Fabian Ware is well known to many who regularly visit the war graves of the Commonwealth dead in both the First and Second World Wars. It is largely due to his vision and determination that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (originally called the Imperial War Graves Commission) took on the principles, characteristics and appearance that it retains today.

A black and white photo of Fabian Ware
Fabian Ware 1869 - 1949

Fabian Ware was born in 1869 and in the early years of his career was Assistant Director and then Director of Education in the Transvaal. From 1905 – 1911 he edited the Morning Post. Aged 44 on the outbreak of war in 1914 he was considered too old to enlist but by September had managed to get to France as head of a mobile Red Cross unit.


As casualties began to mount, he was shocked by the absence of any system for recording the graves of the soldiers who had given their lives. He was also conscious of the effect on morale – men were having to leave their comrades behind in unmarked plots, never to be found or remembered again.


Ware formed the idea of a Grave Registration Commission to find and record the places where men had fallen and to be able to communicate information to grieving families. From the beginning he was insistent that this work should be multinational – that the graves of men from the then Empire should be located and recorded in the same way as the British armed forces. He also worked to get the cooperation of the Central Powers, particularly Turkey where so many Allied soldiers met their deaths in Gallipoli.


In May 1917 an International Imperial War Conference established the Imperial (renamed Commonwealth in 1960) War Graves Commission. Fabian Ware took the role of Vice Chairman, with the Prince of Wales acting as President. He stayed in this role until 1948, the year before his death.

Gravestones in the Cabaret Rouge cemetery
The CWGC gravestones, shown here in the Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery in northern France

Fabian Ware did not just want the location of graves to be recorded: he was determined that the dead should lie in fitting locations with all due honour and respect that could be accorded to them. It soon became apparent that the dead could not be repatriated – the numbers were too vast and the men themselves had largely expressed the wish to lie beside their comrades.


Ware worked alongside, and gave due praise, to the French and Belgian authorities for their generous donation of land for the Allied war dead. A standard curved headstone of Portland marble was ordered for every grave with, where known, the unit, age and date of death of the man or woman commemorated. Yet these headstones were also permitted to become intensely personal as families were able to choose their own inscriptions.

The stone of remembrance in Brookwood CWGC cemetery
The Stone of Remembrance is the same in all large CWGC cemeteries. This one is in Brookwood Military Cemetery outside London

Ware approached artists, architects and poets to devise appropriate ways of designing war memorials and cemeteries. Sir Edward Lutyens was responsible for the design of the Cenotaph in London and the Thiepval Memorial in France, but also for the Stone of Remembrance which stands in all the larger cemeteries. Each stone is 3.5 metres in length and 1.5 metres high, sitting on three shallow steps and designed with curves rather than straight lines to make it more pleasing to the eye.

The Sword of Sacrifice in Dunquerque Cemetery
The Cross of Sacrifice is in all CWGC cemeteries with more than 40 burials. This one is in Dunkirk.

Sir Reginald Blomfield designed the Cross of Sacrifice which also stands in all the larger cemeteries, and the Menin Gate, the memorial to the missing in Ypres where the Last Post is still sounded at 8.00pm every evening. Rudyard Kipling chose the words “Known Unto God” for all those buried in an unknown grave, as well as the words from the King James Bible, “Their name liveth for evermore” which is inscribed on every Stone of Remembrance.


Smaller battlefield cemeteries are all carefully designed with low walls, the headstones standing together irrespective of the rank of the soldier, sailor, airman or nurse in ground that is planted with flowers and shrubs and meticulously maintained.

Fabian Ware's grave in Holy Trinity Church, Amberley

Photographs © David Earle


Fabian Ware’s “memorial” is really every Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery that exists across the world, including the many churchyards scattered across the British Isles where just one or two graves may lie – usually of those who died from wounds once back at home in Blighty. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission currently cares for over 1.1 million graves at more than 23,000 locations across 150 countries and territories and his legacy can be seen in each and every one.


But for the interested Slow Traveller it is also possible to find tributes to his life and work in four locations – his gravestone at Holy Trinity Church, Amberley, in Gloucestershire, a memorial stone in St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, a memorial stone in Gloucester Cathedral and a plaque outside his former home at 14 Wyndham Place, Marylebone, London.

Plaque photographs © Spudgun67

Gloucester Cathedral Memorial photograph © Andrew Abbott


 

You can learn more about the work of the CWGC at their visitor centre in Arras >>


You can find CWGC cemeteries across the world. The largest in the UK is Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey but you will often find graves in some of the smallest churchyards in the country. There is a full list of all locations on the CWGC site >>