Thursday, October 9, 2014

Empires of the Dead

Highland Cemetery, Le Cateau, France
I just finished reading Empires of the Dead by David Crane. I can't get over how much I enjoyed his book on the history of Britain's WWI cemeteries and the man whose vision they represent.

I'm sure I wouldn't have enjoyed the book half as much if I hadn't been to so many WWI cemeteries. In fact, I'd love to read a book that deals with the American cemeteries and the decisions that led to the look and character we take for granted today.

Today we assume that the cemeteries look the way they do because it was always going to be this way. Crane's book makes plain that this isn't true, that the cemeteries are primarily the result of one man's vision, which was shaped by his views on the British Empire and equality (all headstones are uniform - for unknown privates up to well known generals).

At the time many families wanted their loved ones returned to Britain (or Ireland or any of the other nations in the Empire), but that was at odds with Fabian Ware's vision. He had support too, from Kipling who spoke for all those whose sons' bodies were never identified, who had nothing to return home for burial.

If you've traveled to Ypres or to the Somme you'll know what those cemeteries look like: every grave uniformly shaped and sized, and only some sparse personal details and a regimental insignia to make each stone different. Each cemetery has a large "stone of sacrifice" that looks like an altar and a 'cross of sacrifice.'

I always assumed the cross was an automatic, but it was actually the source of some upset at the time or, rather, its absence was a source of upset. The original plans didn't allow for a cross and this bothered many of the families of the dead and so the 'cross of sacrifice' was added. Originally the cemeteries were only going to have the secular stone of sacrifice, but that didn't set well with many in Britain, especially the families of the dead. Lutyen's stone was insufficient for most and his rival's cross was added, much to his horror.

The cross in the cemetery at Etreux
What I'd love to know now, having read Crane's book, is why the cemetery at Etreux is so different. Etreux is where in the early days of the war the Royal Munster Fusiliers made their heroic stand in the face of overwhelming German numbers.

The story of what the 2nd Battalion of the RMF did there is tremendous, but I'm now very curious about the cemetery at Etreux. I want to know why this cemetery is so different, so out of sync with Ware's vision. There are a number of private memorials and the cross is not the standard 'cross of sacrifice,' but a Celtic cross design.

I've been in many CWGC cemeteries and the one at Etreux is one that definitely stands out.