‘Monuments to the Great War Dead’ – David Crane, 11 August 2014

Monuments to the Great War Dead discusses the topic in historian David Crane’s book, Empires of the Dead, a history of the memorials and war graves set up in the aftermath of WWI to honour the nation’s dead and a biography of the man who enabled and oversaw the project; Fabian Ware. Crane brings a great amount of character, humour and sympathy in his portrayal of Ware, setting up his professional development and exploring the reasoning behind what led him to undertake the huge and impressive project of creating lasting memorials to the dead. Prior to the First World War there was no provision for burying the war dead and most soldiers, due to practical and health concerns, were buried or burned in mass graves, while those from wealthier backgrounds were sent home to be buried by their families. Crane therefore sets the development of these communal graves within the context of shifts towards a more socialist society which began during, and were influenced and spurred on by, WWI.

Through Ware’s efforts, and against a lot of pressure from members of the upper class establishment back home, the war fallen were buried together and equally, regardless of rank, class, race or religion. We can see here a form of social equality which was previously unheard of and which would not take full effect for decades later, but which was adopted by a nation in mourning as a means of quantifying and coming to terms with the massive loss it had suffered. The cemeteries which were built all over the world where British, and other Empire nations, had seen action also ushered in a new way in which people paid homage to the war dead and Crane makes an effective case for this becoming an important symbol of British identity, a homage to sacrifice which transcended the other boundaries which existed within Britain and among its allies.

This was a fascinating talk which combined a genuine wish on Crane’s part to allow Fabian Ware to take his rightful place in the Britain’s conscious history with a precise and academic knowledge and appreciation of the time period and events to show how the British nation turned the brutality and the tragedy of war into a lasting legacy to humanism and compassion. While the First World War was not to be ‘the war to end all wars’ as a mourning nation hoped, it did start a precedent of shared grief and national unity through the reflection of war’s tolls.

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