If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Monday, 8 December 2014

He Who Places His Brother in the Ground is Everywhere

Some 750,000 British and Commonwealth service personnel died on the Western Front.  They are remembered in over 1,000 military and 2,000 civilian cemeteries, or, for the more than 300,000 who have no known grave, are commemorated on Memorials to the Missing.[1] The particular way in which these cemeteries and memorials came to be is the result of one man’s effort to ensure that these deaths would have continued meaning; that these lives lost would not be forgotten.  Sir Fabian Ware, working with the British Red Cross who was “saddened by the sheer number of casualties...felt driven to find a way to ensure the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever.”[2] Beginning with painstaking recording and maintaining the first gravesites by 1915 his “work was given official recognition by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.” [3]


Death comes to us all.  Knowledge of this somber fact is the burden created by self awareness.  Our evolution to this level of intellect has also given us the ability, through a psychological theory known as “Terror Management”[4] to successfully deal with the difficult notion of individual mortality.  By and large, this is accomplished, as are so many unpleasant life aspects, by avoidance and denial.  At times, particularly in the event of the death of someone close, those coping skills are insufficient.  Psychology professor Nathan Heflick describes that “humans developed cultural symbols of meaning and value that offer a sense of significance and importance, and ultimately, immortality...as a means of coping with their own death.”[5] Such things have been part of our cultural heritage for millennia.  Anthropologist Philip Lieberman cites the oldest known intentional burial is at least 100,000 years old.  These are “the oldest fossil hominids who possessed speech producing anatomy and brains that are the biological bases of speech and syntax.  The evidence of their burials with grave goods is consistent with their having possessed cognitive abilities that approach our own....If we assume that the minds of our distant ancestors worked like ours, we can take burials that include grave goods as evidence for religious beliefs.”[6]

If it is difficult enough to appropriately cope in an emotionally healthy way an individual death; such numbers of deaths as were caused by the First World War must have been beyond normal comprehension or ability to process.  When dealing with numbers in the hundreds of thousands of lives all taken in violent circumstances, it no longer becomes necessary to have a personal connection to the dead for it to have resonance.  By year’s end in 1914, Britain alone recorded 26,886 deaths.[7] At the point of such a volume, it becomes a communal event.  When paired with the notion that these lives were lost in an act of preserving that community, society copes en masse by assigning a higher level of importance to lives lost in war.  It assuages fears of our own mortality by assuring ourselves that those who died on our behalf have achieved that level of immortality.  That we can assign a higher level of significance to particular circumstances relating to death goes a long way to reason why war graves are so revered.

Professor Heflick’s research indicates that things which inspire thought of death, “death reminders” as he puts it, cause people to defend cultural worldviews more strongly, identify more with members of their own group, show increased interest in close relationships, show preference for clear, well structured information, become more religious and believe more in the supernatural; and show reduced self control and self regulation.[8]  This becomes a salient point when discussing veteran’s issues so close to November 11th.   Prof Heflick says “I would suspect that the death thoughts activated naturally by Remembrance Day would make people more defensive of their belief systems. This would conceivably include any political issues, related to Veterans or not. So basically, people's views should become more strong/extreme. If they are liberal, they would become more liberal; if they are conservative they would become more conservative, for instance….  I would think most people would become more extreme.It is a bit more complicated than this, as it always is when leaving the lab and trying to extrapolate it into the real world. But, this would be what terror management theory would predict.”[9]

Sir Fabian Ware’s devotion to ensure proper burial for the war’s dead would not be an easy task.  The war would continue another three years, cause millions of deaths and be fought in dozens of places throughout Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East.  Due to the intensity of battle along with considerations for hygiene and morale, bodies would be buried as quickly as practicable; often with little regard to ceremony or within an established cemetery.  “It was often impractical to dig individual graves, and bodies were laid side by side in a long trench”[10] The static nature of the First World War would complicate matters of burial and identity of the dead further “the worst of improvised burials close to the front line was the near certainty that the body would be disinterred by shellfire.”[11]

Many of the men taken out of the line as casualties who would later die of their wounds had been brought to Advanced Dressing Stations- “These were mobile treatment centres...far enough back to be out of the line of fire.”[12] These locations “later formed the basis for several Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries on the Western Front.  Perhaps the best known former dressing station is Essex Farm, just north of Ypres, where the Canadian medical officer John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields.”[13]

Ware and his staff would continue in their work of recording burial sites, but the task the Commission had set for itself would really begin after the Armistice.  Using the collected registry, bodies would be exhumed and re-interred in uniformly designed cemeteries, as close to the initial burials as possible.  Ware had set guidelines for this purpose- that the grave markers be identical in shape and size; to promote the idea of equality amongst the dead, and that every man be remembered, regardless of known burial.  The psychological notion of immortality is interrupted when there is no closure; particularly in these cases of no definitive burial.  It would tend to deepen the feeling of loss because it is paradoxically finite and inconclusive.

An immense undertaking such as this can have its oversights.  To this day, remains of individuals buried in haste and not recovered directly after the war are still being discovered.  In other instances, known burial sites have been lost over time, like that of Grave CA40, in Thelus, France.  CA40 is known to contain the bodies of 44 Canadian soldiers of the 16th Battalion killed during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Norm Christie, author, TV presenter and battlefield tour operator has made his latest project the investigation into and search for CA40, believed to be a mass grave made from a mine crater in no man’s land.[14]

In the unfolding years, the Imperial War Graves Commission, later taking on its current designation of Commonwealth War Graves Commission would assume further responsibilities with the dead of the Second World War.  The CWGC is responsible for the care and maintenance of cemeteries and memorials dedicated to the more than 1.7 million individuals who died in the two World Wars at 23,000 locations in 153 countries.[15] The CWGC has done this, tirelessly, for almost a century, relying on funding cooperatively contributed by the governments of the six member nations:  “Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The cost of the Commission's work is met by the member governments in proportion to the number of their war graves. The Secretary of State for Defence in the United Kingdom is the chairman of the Commission. Each of the other member governments appoints its High Commissioner in London to be its Commission representative.”[16]

Under their care these sites and memorials are kept from falling into disrepair or neglect, ensuring the continued memory of our war dead and offering the comfort to those still living, of that sense of immortality.



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[1] Holmes, Richard “Tommy, The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918” Harper Perennial, 2005, pg 14
[2] http://www.cwgc.org/
[3] http://www.cwgc.org/
[4] http://www.psychologytoday.com/ “How We Cope With Death: A theory of Terror Management”, Dr. Nathan A Heflick (University of Kent) 
[5] Dr. Nathan A Heflick, ibid.  
[6] Lieberman, Philip, “Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior” Harvard University Press 1993 pp 163-64
[7] Bridger, Geoff, “The Great War Handbook” Pen & Sword Military 2013
[8] Dr. Nathan A Heflick, ibid.  
[9] Dr Nathan A Heflick; in interview with author, 06 Dec 2014
[10] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 300
[11] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 298
[12] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 104
[13] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 477
[14] http://www.centenarynews.com/article?id=2973
[15] http://www.cwgc.org/
[16] http://www.cwgc.org/

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