Empires of the Dead: How One Man's Vision LED to the Creation of WWI's War Graves

Empires of the Dead: How One Man's Vision LED to the Creation of WWI's War Graves

Book rating: 04 Hardback HarperPress

By (author) David Crane

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Paperback $11.00
  • Publisher: William Collins
  • Format: Hardback | 304 pages
  • Dimensions: 144mm x 218mm x 30mm | 480g
  • Publication date: 29 April 2014
  • Publication City/Country: London
  • ISBN 10: 0007456654
  • ISBN 13: 9780007456659
  • Edition statement: New ed.
  • Illustrations note: 16 b/w plates
  • Sales rank: 104,466

Product description

Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction; the extraordinary and forgotten story behind the building of the First World War cemeteries, due to the efforts of one remarkable and visionary man, Fabian Ware. Before WWI, little provision was made for the burial of the war dead. Soldiers were often unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave; officers shipped home for burial. The great cemeteries of WWI came about as a result of the efforts of one inspired visionary. In 1914, Fabian Ware joined the Red Cross, working on the frontline in France. Horrified by the hasty burials, he recorded the identity and position of the graves. His work was officially recognised, with a Graves Registration Commission being set up. As reports of their work became public, the Commission was flooded with letters from grieving relatives around the world. Critically acclaimed author David Crane gives a profoundly moving account of the creation of the great citadels to the dead, which involved leading figures of the day, including Rudyard Kipling. It is the story of cynical politicking, as governments sought to justify the sacrifice, as well as the grief of nations, following the 'war to end all wars'.

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Author information

David Crane's first book, 'Lord Byron's Jackal' was published to great acclaim in 1998, and his second, 'The Kindness of Sisters' published in 2002, is a groundbreaking work of romantic biography. In 2005 the highly acclaimed 'Scott of the Antarctic' was published, followed by 'Men of War', a collection of 19th Century naval biographies, in 2009. Crane lives in north-west Scotland.

Customer reviews

By Marcus C Fielding 29 Sep 2014 4

No tour of the battlefields of the two World Wars can omit a visit to at least one Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery. Indeed, with the land being returned to its original uses and being developed, these battlefields are increasingly identified through these cemeteries. The rows of uniform white headstones are at once beautiful yet tragic and represent a tangible legacy of war. The story of how they came into existence is told in Empires of the Dead: How one man’s vision led to the creation of WWI’s war graves.
Before World War I (WWI), little provision was made for the burial of the war dead. Soldiers were often unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave; officers shipped home to be buried in local cemeteries. The great cemeteries of WWI came about as a result of the efforts of one inspired visionary. In 1914, Fabian Ware, at 45, was too old to enlist. Instead, he joined the Red Cross, working on the front line in France. There he was horrified by the ignominious end to the lives of many of the soldiers who, buried hastily, were often lost as the battle lines moved backward and forward over the same ground. He recorded their identity and the position of their graves, and his work was quickly officially recognised, with a Graves Registration Commission being set up. As reports of their work became public, the Commission was flooded with letters from grieving relatives around the world.
The subsequent story of how and why this graves registration work led to the creation of thousands of cemeteries around the world and the CWGC is one of imperialism, faith, grief, guilt, ego, vision, bureaucracy, politics and resources. The story is meticulously researched and well told in Empires of the Dead. And while the end result is simple in concept and physically elegant, the process was far less so. The decision to not allow relatives to repatriate the bodies of relatives back to their homelands – particularly Britain for example – was particularly hard fought and acrimonious; as was the decision for all ranks to receive the same style of headstone.
Interestingly, the Germans followed suit by also establishing cemeteries in France and Belgium – albeit with a distinctly different style and character. Conversely, the French, with dramatically greater losses than the British Empire in WWI, allowed bodies to be returned to families and buried in local cemeteries. Significantly for Australians are some references to the challenges of identifying bodies on the Gallipoli Peninsula four years after the withdrawal.
Having established a standard it was perhaps not surprising that those Allied soldiers killed during WW2 were similarly interred. But it also is worth recognising that since then most soldiers’ bodies have been repatriated back to their homelands. In the end, the thousands of CWGC cemeteries and memorials are a monument to the sacrifice made by the British Empire during these two major wars. It is here that Crane perhaps derived the title for this book. It is somewhat ironic, however, that despite the high price paid, the British Empire collapsed as a result of these wars.
Empires of the Dead includes a few maps and a good number of colour and black and white illustrations. The notes are comprehensive reflecting the significant amount of research Crane undertook. There is also a select bibliography and an index. The RRP represents good value for money.
Coming at the start of the WWI Centenary, Empires of the Dead risks being lost in the rush and perhaps it may have been more fitting to publish it in a few years’ time. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story that deserved to be told.
Marcus Fielding

By Geoffrey Barber 14 Feb 2014 4

Having visited the war graves in France in 2012 I found this book absolutely fascinating. It opened my eyes to the story behind the cemeteries and the ideas that they represent. Now I am keen to go back to see them again. However, I think you would have need to have visited the WW1 cemeteries in France to really appreciate this book. I just wish there had been some discussion in the book about the history of the German cemeteries, as they are very different and there must be a story behind that as well.

Review quote

'Of the avalanche of books to commemorate the centennial of the opening of the Great War, 'Empires of the Dead' is the most original, best written and most challenging so far. It strikes at the heart of the current debate about what we are commemorating, celebrating or deploring in the flood of ceremony, debate and literary rows about the meaning of the First World War today. Crane succeeds in doing so by looking at the achievement of Fabian Ware, who to this day is almost an unknown in the pantheon of heroes or villains associated with the conflict' Evening Standard 'Outstanding ... Crane shows how extraordinary a physical, logistical and administrative feat it was to bury or commemorate more than half a million dead in individual graves. And he reveals that this Herculean task was accomplished largely due to the efforts of one man: Fabian Ware' Independent on Sunday 'Vivid and compelling ... David Crane writes exuberant, joyful prose. He is acutely aware of the ambiguities and nuances surrounding the issues of war and death; and that makes this a fine and troubling book, as well as a riveting read' Literary Review 'A superb study. The story of the foundation and achievements of the War Graves Commission has been told before, but never so well or so perceptively. Crane brings out the complexities of Ware's character ... his brilliance as a diplomat ... and the paradoxes in his achievement' Spectator 'The most original, shortest and best written of the year's tsunami of books on the impact of the Great War' Evening Standard, Books of the Year 'Excellent' Sunday Times 'Intensely moving' Boyd Tonkin, Independent 'A beautifully written, enormously touching account of Ware's attempt to create what Kipling called, 'a work greater than the Pharoahs" Daily Mail 'In retrieving [Ware] from history, Crane has performed an important work of remembrance' New Statesman 'A beautifully researched and written book, an intellectually honest work of history' Guardian