On 18 November 1918, one week after the armistice had finally brought an end to the First World War, George Macdonogh, the Adjutant-General of the British Army, chaired a conference to examine how best to locate and bury the hundreds of thousands of war dead. One measure agreed at the meeting was to divide the Western Front into sectors: the Canadians would be responsible for searching the Albert/Courcelette area and Vimy Ridge; the Australians for Pozières and Villers-Bretonneux; the French for the Aisne/Marne battleground of 1914; and the British would take charge of the rest.


It would be grisly work, stated Macdonogh, so volunteers would paid an extra two shillings and six pence a day. The exhumation companies, who with the customary dark humour of the British Tommy dubbed themselves ‘Travelling Garden Parties’, were composed of squads of 32 men each. Their tools were “two pairs of rubber gloves, two shovels, stakes to mark the location of graves found, canvas and rope to tie up remains, stretchers, cresol [a poisonous and colourless compound] and wire cutters.”

The men who volunteered for the exhumation companies had all fought in the trenches, so they knew the tell-tale signs of where bodies may be found. They looked for grass that had turned slightly blue indicating a body underneath, holes in the ground made by rats digging out a bone, or the butt of a rifle just visible in the mud. When they located a corpse, the men retrieved the identity discs and personnel effects, then placed the remains on a canvas sheet soaked in cresol.

“Working in the fields digging up the bodies, a very unpleasant job,” wrote Australian Private William McBeath in his diary on 15 April 1919. Two days later, he described how his work was interrupted by an unwelcome visitor: “Working in cemetery. An English lady came over to see her son’s grave, found him lying in a bag and fainted.”

The men who volunteered for the exhumation companies had all fought in the trenches, so they knew the tell-tale signs of where bodies may be found. Grass that had turned slightly blue indicated a body underneath

The English poet and writer John Masefield, who had worked as an orderly in a field hospital in France, believed the work of the exhumation companies would prove futile. "The places where they lie will be forgotten or changed," he wrote in his book The Battle of the Somme. "Green things will grow, or have already grown, over their graves. It may be that all these dead will some day be removed to a national graveyard."

But Masefield’s scepticism was misplaced, for he had not reckoned on the efforts of one of the unsung heroes of the war, Fabian Ware. More than any other person, he ensured that a century after “the war to end all wars”, the graves of the fallen would remain immaculate and honoured.

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Photo of Sir Fabian Ware
Sir Fabian Ware kept up his tireless work through and beyond World War I. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)

One man's war

The Bristol-born Ware was 45 when the war began. His professional life hitherto had been varied, including a stint as an educational administrator in South Africa, a spell editing The Morning Post newspaper and, in 1914, a post as the special commissioner to the Rio Tinto mining company.

He was desperate to do his bit for the war effort, but he was too old to fight. Undeterred, he used his contacts to travel to France as the head of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross. Along with a band of volunteers, men in possession of automobiles, he drove around the northern French countryside collecting the wounded at a time when the war had yet to develop into static trench warfare.

As Ware went about his work, he grew increasingly concerned at the way the army was dealing with its dead. Soldiers would be buried where they fell in shallow graves and with a rudimentary wooden cross, if even that. There was no attempt to log the burials and Ware believed the graves would be destroyed in future fighting.

Remembering the fallen around the world

Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery 

The cemetery in the rugged foothills of Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a testament to the brutality experienced by Allied POWs under Japanese rule. It contains the graves of 3,149 Commonwealth and 621 Dutch men who died building the notorious Burma-Siam railway.

Kohima War Cemetery

With more than 1,400 British and Indian graves, this cemetery in Nagaland stands on the scene of bloody fighting in the spring of 1944 when Japan tried to invade India. Inscribed on the memorial to the dead is: “When you go home / Tell them of us and say / For your tomorrow / We gave our today.”

Beach Cemetery, Gallipoli 

To the ANZAC troops (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), the beach below the cliffs at Gallipoli, Turkey, would become known as ‘Hell Spit’. At Beach Cemetery, nearly 400 bodies now lie near the sea from which they had come ashore on 25 April 1915.

London Cemetery, Somme 

There are few places better to remember the horrors of the First World War, and bear witness to the unlearned lessons of the 20th century, than the Somme. Nearly 4,000 from that war are buried here, plus 165 from the Second World War, mostly men from the Highland Division killed in 1940.

Devonshire Cemetery 

Also on the Western Front, this cemetery contains 163 graves, the majority from the regiment after whom it is named. They were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme. A memorial at the entrance reads: “The Devonshires held this trench; the Devonshires hold it still.”

Grave Island Cemetery 

One of the most inaccessible cemeteries is on Grave Island, a tiny coral off the coast of Zanzibar. It takes 20 minutes by boat to reach the island, and visitors have to wade ashore. The 24 graves there are for sailors from HMS Pegasus, killed in action on 20 September 1914.

So in October 1914, he persuaded, with the support of the Red Cross, the army to allow his unit to expand its remit. They would not only collect the wounded, but keep an official register of the location of every grave, placing a permanent marker on the spot. It hadn’t been difficult to win over the military. The war was evidently not going to be the short all-over-by-Christmas affair everyone had initially believed and hoped, but would last months, even years, and public opinion was becoming more critical as the casualties mounted.

Before the 20th century, the British had attached little importance to honouring their fallen soldiers, with most being buried in mass graves and only the social elite and wealthiest accorded individual recognition. This had caused anger and distress in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and the army acknowledged that it would be beneficial for morale if more humane methods were introduced.

In March 1915, Ware's unit – now comprising 121 vehicles – was rechristened the Graves Registration Commission. The Times ran a piece on their work the following month, which was no doubt intended as a fillip for worried families. "The first of these mobile units was formed in September, and has since been attached to the French Cavalry Division," commented the article. "Members of this unit have rendered excellent services in searching for the graves of British soldiers. In many cases the graves are marked by wooden crosses, upon which, however, such evidence of identity as could be traced had been often only pencilled. To these crosses metal plates are now being fixed, and records are being kept, so that the graves may be easily identified after the war."

By now, the nature of the fighting on the Western Front had changed. It was no longer the fast, fluid conflict of the early autumn of 1914. The protagonists had dug in, constructing a complex trench system that stretched from Switzerland to the Channel. Heavy artillery attempted to blast the enemy out of their fortifications and when, in 1915, the infantry tried to seize trenches with the aid of poison gas – at the Second Battle of Ypres and Loos – the numbers of casualties were reaching appalling heights.

Ware and his unit registered some 27,000 graves that year, which prompted General Douglas Haig, then a corps commander and later the commander of the British and Commonwealth Armies, to remark that their work has “an extraordinary moral value to the troops as well as to the relatives and friends of the dead at home”.

In recognition of their role, the Graves Registration Commission was transferred from the Red Cross to the army and, on Ware’s insistence, a principle of ‘equality of treatment’ was agreed. For the first time, the dead would not be treated differently according to their rank, social status or wealth, meaning that every fallen soldier was to be honoured in the same way. What’s more, there would be no repatriation of bodies.

An innovation in a soldier's identity

Perhaps one of Fabian Ware’s most important innovations was the double identity disc. Made of compressed fibre – which was also used during World War II – they became standard issue in September 1916, replacing the thin aluminium dog tags that had been in use since in 1907, but had become harder to produce due to stocks of aluminium running low.

The durable discs were red and green, and each carried the same information: the soldier’s name, number, rank and religion. The circular red tag could be retrieved by cutting its short string, leaving the eight-sided green tag on the body. So if a body was found with only the green, it meant that the death had already been reported. The details on it could then be used to prepare a grave marker.

France facilitated the new policy in December by "ceding in perpetuity land for Allied graves in France", as reported in The Times. The paper also noted that Ware had been part of an official British Army delegation that called upon General Joseph Gallieni, Minister of War, at Christmas to express the "sincere thanks" of the nation.

A National Committee for the Care of Soldiers’ Graves was established in early 1916, with the Prince of Wales as its president and Ware a committee member. By this point, the Graves Registration Commission had grown to an organisation employing 700 staff, a sombre testament to the scale of the task they had faced in the first 18 months of the war. Little did Ware know, however, as he moved his office to London in May, that the slaughter had only just begun. The battles of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers – many blown to bits, drowned in mud or left to rot in no man’s land.

Many bodies were left where they fell and quickly lost in no man’s land, such as here in the destroyed forests of Alsace-Lorraine. (Photo by Getty Images)
Many bodies were left where they fell and quickly lost in no man’s land, such as here in the destroyed forests of Alsace-Lorraine. (Photo by Getty Images)

Honouring the dead

There was only so much that could be accomplished while the fighting continued. When the guns finally fell silent on 11 November 1918, Ware’s work began in earnest. He was now a Major General and vice-chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission (rechristened the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960). It had been granted a Royal Charter in May 1917 and the Prince of Wales appointed the inaugural president.

Ware was faced with a staggering list of 500,000 missing soldiers, nearly the same figure as those men with a grave. His first task was to start the search for remains, while at the same time beginning the long, complex and sensitive task of how best to honour the fallen. The War Graves Commission had discussed the issue in its first meeting in November 1917, at which Sir Frederic Kenyon, then Director of the British Museum, accepted an invitation to act as architectural advisor. Answering to him were four principal architects: Sir Edwin Lutyens, Reginald Blomfield, Herbert Baker and Charles Holden.

Kenyon spent that winter visiting the Western Front and in January 1918 he wrote a report in which he stated: “The general appearance of a British cemetery will be that of an enclosure with plots of grass or flowers (or both) separated by paths of varying size, and set with orderly rows of headstones, uniform in height and width.”

There would be no distinction in death between officers and their men. An aristocrat might lie next to a miner, a Muslim next to a Catholic, an Englishman next to an Indian, and their headstones would be identical save for the inscription on each giving the soldier’s name, rank, regiment and date of death.

It was agreed that families could choose a personal inscription at the foot of the headstone, although it was not to exceed 66 letters, and each grave would bear a Christian cross unless requested otherwise. The Star of David was engraved on headstones of Jewish soldiers and in each cemetery there would be a Cross of Sacrifice and a Stone of Remembrance, made from Portland limestone wherever possible. Inscriptions were initially charged at three and a half pence per letter, but the fee was later made voluntary after an outcry.

Cemetery and memorial inscriptions: Kipling finds the right words 

When the Commission needed suitably respectful and timeless inscriptions for the cemeteries and memorials, they turned to famous writer Rudyard Kipling. Some, like Tory MP Hugh Cecil, objected as he was “not a known religious man”, but Kipling had plenty of emotional attachment to the project. His only son, John, had died at the Battle of Loos in 1915 and had no known grave.

For the Stones of Remembrance in each cemetery, he chose the biblical words "Their Name Liveth For Evermore" and headstones of the unknown were inscribed with "A Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God".

He also put forward "The Glorious Dead" for the Cenotaph. The Commission was accused by newspapers and relatives in 1920 of being bureaucratic and cruel for refusing personalised headstones, to which Kipling retorted: “I wish some of the people who are making this trouble realised how more than fortunate they are to have a name on a headstone in a named place.”

He died in 1936, but his son’s grave was not identified until 1992.

This policy didn’t meet with universal approval. In 1919, a petition was handed to the government, having been backed by sections of the press, demanding that “relatives of those who fell in the war should be allowed to erect monuments of their own choosing over the graves”.

On the eve of the House of Commons discussing the motion in April 1920, Sir George Perley, High Commissioner for Canada, wrote to the Chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission, Winston Churchill, warning that “this motion seems to me to strike directly at the root of the principle of equality of treatment of war graves”. Churchill agreed, as did the majority of the House, and in throwing out the motion, he said: “There is no reason why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France... shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial.”

While the architects, accountants and administrators worked – managing to keep to the original estimate of £10 per grave – it was left to the exhumation companies to locate the dead. None would ever forget the horror of their task. “For the first week or two I could scarcely endure the experiences we met with,” recalled Private McCauley. “Often have I picked up the remains of a fine brave man on a shovel. Just a little heap of bones and maggots to be carried to the common burial place... I shuddered as my hands, covered in soft flesh and slime, moved about in search of the [identity] disc.”

The work of the Commission today 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has responsibility for the graves of nearly 1.7 million servicemen and women killed during the two world wars. In total, there are 23,000 locations across more than 150 countries, with the largest cemetery being in Tyne Cot, Belgium (almost 12,000 burials) and the smallest in Ocracoke Island, US, where four British sailors killed in 1942 are buried.

While the CWGC holds historical workshops at home and abroad to increase awareness of its work and the sacrifice of the men and women it honours, it also continues to bury the dead.

In August 2018, four Canadian soldiers were laid to rest in Loos British Cemetery in France. Their remains had been discovered during a munitions clearing process in 2010 and 2011. After years of historical, genealogical, anthropological and DNA analysis, the quartet – all killed during the Battle of Hill 70 in 1917 – had been identified.

Such diligence extends to the team of more than 850 CWGC gardeners who work to keep the cemeteries so immaculate. Among them, until his death in 2017, was Ibrahim Jaradah, who tended the Gaza War Cemetery in Palestine for 60 years.

The bulk of the work would not be completed until 1937. By then, there were nearly 1,000 cemeteries across France and Belgium, containing some 600,000 headstones and 18 larger memorials to the missing. That same year, the Duke of Gloucester succeeded the Prince of Wales as president of the Commission. In his inaugural speech, he described the “great privilege” of his appointment and added: “I have heard, on many occasions, of the comfort which the work of the Commission has brought to relatives overseas as well as at home.”

One of those headstones marked the grave of 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Walter John Warrell-Bowring, who was killed on 29 July 1916 and buried in the Aveluy Communal Cemetery Extension on the Somme. His parents chose an inscription that was also a plea: “Let those that come after see to it that his name is not forgotten.”

Through the ongoing efforts of the Commission, a century after the end of World War I that plea is still being answered.

Gavin Mortimer is a writer and historian. His latest book is David Stirling: The Phoney Major: The Life, Times and Truth about the Founder of the SAS (Constable, 2022)


This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed


Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant