The last rites that it is in the power of the Authorities to accord to those who have given their lives in the war are the responsibility of the Graves Registration Service and the Imperial War Graves Commission. ALEXANDER DILKE explains here the work of the special units concerned with interment, and the marking and maintaining of the last hallowed resting places.
By 1914-18 standards our casualties in the present war have been "light", though many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Empire lie buried in Britain or "some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England". The burial of these men who have given their lives, and the marking of their graves, is receiving the same reverent care as the similar sad task during and after the last war, a task which was only just completed before the outbreak of the present war.
In Madagascar, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, New Guinea and in Britain itself new cemeteries have been designed according to the very high standards set in 1918. As the fighting front has moved forward, soldiers specially trained for the work begin the task of bringing the men from their scattered graves and burying them in these cemeteries with the temporary standard cross to mark the grave. Full details are most carefully recorded, and in due course the temporary cross will be replaced by whatever form if permanent headstone is agreed upon.
On the overseas battlefields, the work of marking and maintaining graves is carried out by the Graves Registration Service of the Army. When circumstances permit, the Imperial War Graves Commission takes over responsibility. Shortly after the Germans had been driven from North Africa, the Army requested the Commission to take over responsibility for permanent maintenance and construction of the graves of soldiers who fell in the East African campaigns and the many campaigns in the Desert and in Tunisia and Algeria.
The Commission created a new administrative area and appointed Col. R. H. Hoffman, formerly of the Staff of the Union of South Africa Defence Force, to take charge. As Assistant Director of Graves Registration and Inquiries in the Middle East for a year, he had great experience of the special problems involved. Mr. J. Hubert Worthington was appointed Principal Architect for North Africa. Seventeen to nineteen permanent cemeteries for those who fell in the Western Desert and North Africa are being laid out and during the coming months some will be handed over to the Imperial War Graves Commission.
The choice of a site for a military cemetery is never simple, for ease of access and maintenance as well as military association and environment have to be taken into consideration. The work of locating the scattered graves of men who fell in the many battles in Africa is now going on apace. It is difficult and sometimes dangerous work. Millions of mines were sown in the desert. Although it is now over one and a half years since Alamein, and the front line is thousands of miles away, unexploded shells, booby traps and mines remain. Rommel's booby-traps tied to our dead or littered near their temporary graves in the desert still wait for the unwary. Six officers and men of the Graves Registration Service have been killed lately. Shifting sands of the desert make maps obsolete and may obliterate a grave where a man was hastily buried in the heat of battle. Yet all these graves are being located by special units, going out with lorries into the desert and searching several days, perhaps, for a single grave.
The soldiers carrying out this work feel a special responsibility and are determined that no comrade-in-arms shall lie in an unmarked grave if persistence and the skilful use of recorded information and knowledge of the ways of the desert can prevent it. When all the men who fell at or near Alamein are brought in, they will lie in a cemetery approached at both ends through triumphal arches, and the desert site will be beautified with grass and shrubs.
It was not until fifteen years after the Cease Fire in 1918 that the Imperial War Graves Commission was satisfied that every fallen soldier who could be identified had been given a grave. Years after the end of the war, the finding of a cigarette case or a chance remark, resulted in identifications being made and another headstone being erected. We may expect the same thing to happen after the end of the present war.
In Madagascar the work of making permanent cemeteries is progressing. In Abyssinia the Foreign Office last year opened negotiations with the Ethiopian Government concerning the care of British war graves. In Palestine and in Syria new cemeteries have been opened. Some of the dead of the present war have been buried in the British Naval Cemetery at Tripoli (Syria) where lie men from H.M.S. Victoria and H.M.S. Camperdown, killed in 1893.
From Burma and Malaya there is no news, and it does not seem likely that there will be until the Japanese have been driven out. From the countries of Occupied Europe, reports of burials during the present war are received through the International Red Cross. Belgian patriots recently placed new crosses on the graves of Allied soldiers who fell during the 1940 campaign, at the cemetery at Blankenberghe. Friendly Danes have planted British graves in their country with roses and tulips.
News from the Continent of cemeteries containing the graves of the last war indicates that there has been no vandalism, although (necessarily) some neglect. Where headstones have been damaged or destroyed by battles or bombing they have been replaced by the Vichy authorities with wooden crosses. Men to the number of 157 employed by the Imperial War Graves Commission in looking after the cemeteries and memorials have been interned.
Because of the air war, many men engaged on active service have died in Britain. The Commission is responsible for all war graves in Britain and has marked with wooden crosses those in over 1,000 Service plots and privately owned graves in cemeteries and churchyards. The majority of men of all nationalities lie in Brookwood, where there is a U.S. Military Cemetery, and a Canadian Section where 50 Canadians brought back from Dieppe were buried with maple leaves from the tree in the centre of the 1914-18 Canadian plot. There are new sections for Belgian, Czechoslovak, French, and Polish graves.
In Service plots, marked in the same way, are the graves of Nursing Services, W.R.N.S., A.T.S. and W.A.A.F. They have not been grouped separately, and the Commission has found that this absolute equality of treatment has the full approval of the Services and of the relatives.
The nature of this war has led to more civilians than Servicemen being killed in Britain. About 50,000 men, women and children have been killed by bombs. The Imperial War Graves Commission does not mark their graves, but it records each one, and with the aid of relatives has compiled a list, county by county; three leather-bound volumes with names and details have been deposited in Westminster Abbey. Copies are available for the consultation of the public in London, Edinburgh and Belfast.
At the end of the 1914-18 war the Imperial War Graves Commission was faces with the gigantic task of finding permanent resting places and memorials for 1,100,000 dead who were buried in 100,000 different places. Now, under the Vice-Chairmanship of Major-General Sir Fabian Ware, K.C.V.O., they have the advantage of experience, and we may be confident that when temporary crosses are replaced by permanent memorials, and the planting of the cemeteries has been completed, these will be worthy of the cause for which the fallen gave their lives.