Before the First World War the main purpose of Britain’s army was the enlargement and protection of the Empire. Military deaths usually occurred far away from the soldier’s homes and there was no significant demand for the return of their bodies. Had there been it would have been prohibitively expensive in the few cases where it might have been practically possible. Soldiers were buried where they died. In any case, before the First World War, the ordinary soldier was generally regarded as the scum of the earth, both by his officers and the general public.
This attitude changed during the First World War as young men of all classes volunteered to do ‘their duty for King and Country’. They were the sons of respectable and loyal families and as the small full-time army swelled to millions, the fate of soldiers became a widespread concern. This was also a time of changing attitudes to death.
Burial was often haphazard with soldiers often buried where they died in single or collective graves. Exhumation from battlefield graves was strictly forbidden; the army assumed that the dead would be buried where they fell, as had been the case in previous wars. But one high profile case created some consternation. In response to high-level pressure this order was ignored and the body of the grandson of the former Prime Minister Gladstone was disinterred under heavy German fire and sent to England for a military funeral.
Some, including Fabian Ware who later became the head of the Imperial War Graves Commission, realised that such action would lead to increased demands for repatriation of all the war dead and persuaded the authorities to issue a firm order forbidding exhumations, partly on the grounds of hygiene, but also to prevent having to give in to pressure from powerful, or wealthy relatives of particular soldiers. For the wealthy this was not a popular decision and many argued against it. For the majority it was not an issue, as they could not afford the cost.
Ware thought it would be better if all the soldiers stayed together in death as they had in life. He argued that for many soldiers there was a genuine sense of unity, even comradeship between officers and men sharing the discomfort, danger, and horrors of the trenches. Ware’s plan was eventually adopted and isolated graves and small groups of graves were moved into larger cemeteries; furthermore the headstones would all be the same, and there would be no distinction made because of rank or status; generals and privates, rich and poor would stay together. This arrangement was of no consolation to the dead but the ‘democratic’ gloss no doubt gave comfort to some bereaved and helped sidetrack questions about why so many men were sent to their death for no significant purpose.
At the war’s end the bodies of half of British soldiers killed had not been found; the names of these ‘missing’ are recorded on walls and monuments in the area of the major battlefields.
In May 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was formed to care for the graves of all members of the Imperial Forces. By January 1918 it declared that there would be no repatriation, as all soldiers, whatever their rank should ‘lie together in their last resting place, facing the line they gave their lives to maintain.’ A comforting phrase that erases just about everything that the war was about. There was another reason moving such huge numbers back to Britain would be a ruinously expensive at the best of times, let alone at the end of the war when Britain was virtually bankrupt.
Not everyone was happy about these decisions. Many were critical of the design of the headstone (it resembled a milestone) while others wanted a cross over their son’s graves. The eventual inclusion of the Cross of Sacrifice in all cemeteries pacified some, but there were increasing calls ‘for the boys to be brought home’. The Spectator and the Daily Mail, in particular, ran fierce campaigns attacking both the Commission and the government.
In May 1920 a debate in the House of Commons about the headstone design, and on the question of repatriation, concluded that the Commission's way of dealing with the problem was, despite its shortcomings, the only realistic way of coping with the sheer numbers of graves. The burial of the unknown warrior later that year put an end to the criticism.