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´╗┐Title: The Care of the Dead
Author: Anonymous
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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             THE CARE


             THE DEAD


    Eyre and Spottiswoode, Ltd.



In a graveyard west of Vimy there are buried 1,320 French soldiers
and more than 600 English. The earth is bare on most of the English
graves; the French ones are older, but all are cared for alike by the
Englishman now in charge of the place. "We leave you our trenches and
our dead," a French officer said to an English one when our army took
over this part of the line, and both parts of the trust are discharged
with a will.

What this means for the French, one feels when one sees the visits
of French soldiers' friends to their graves. The other day a French
woman in deep mourning came here with a handful of white flowers to
place upon one of these. Probably it was her son's, for she was not
young. While she was arranging them at its head, there came into the
cemetery one of the usual little bareheaded processions--a N.C.O.
showing the way; then an English chaplain with his open book; then,
on a stretcher, the body sewn up in a brown army blanket, a big Union
Jack lying over it; then half a dozen privates looking as Englishmen do
at these moments--a little awkward, but simply and sincerely sorry. As
they passed the French woman she rose and then, evidently moved by some
impulse which shyness made it difficult to follow, fell in at the rear
of the procession, with some of the flowers still in her hand. When I
next saw them, the men were standing round the new grave, the chaplain
was reading aloud, "dust to dust" and "ashes to ashes," and the woman,
a few yards away, was kneeling on the ground. The service over, and
the rest turning away, she came close to the grave, dropped the white
flowers in, and went back to the other grave empty handed.

One knew, though the woman could not, how all this would be told
to the dead Englishman's comrades; and one felt the truth of Sir
Douglas Haig's saying, that a kind of work which "does not directly
contribute to the successful termination of the war" may still "have
an extraordinary moral value to the troops in the field, as well as to
the relatives and friends of the dead at home." But for the work of
the Army's Graves Registration Units, this little scene and many other
scenes equally binding, in their degree, to the friendship of England
and France could scarcely have taken place. After the French Army had
left this district, the French soldier's grave might not have been
taken care of, perhaps could not have been even known to be his; the
Englishman might have been buried under cover of night in some vacant
space near the firing-trench, and all trace of the grave blown away
next day by a shell. To know the full worth of what these units are
doing now, one needs to see first what the state of things was in the
first months of the war.

In those days a man was commonly buried close to the place where he
fell. Wherever hard fighting had been, in France or Belgium, the eye of
the traveller along the roads is struck by many low crosses sticking
out of the ground--in the fields, in cottage gardens, in corners of
farmyards and orchards, even on roadside strips of grass. Where the
ground has changed hands a good deal in the course of the war, you may
see, within a few hundred yards of each other, the gabled and eaved
cross of the Germans, with "Hier ruht in Gott" and a name painted
white on a dark ground, the beaded wire wreath of the French, with
its "Requiescat" or "Mort pour la France," and the plain-lined cross
of the English, white or light brown or just the unpainted wood, "In
loving memory" of one or more officers or men. Even now a good many
of these isolated memorials are raised. The very position of some of
them is eloquent. Near Fricourt, on what used to be No Man's Land till
we won it this summer, a number of crosses, all of the English sort
and inscribed in English, stand to the honoured memory of "an unknown
French soldier," "two unknown French soldiers," "six unknown French
soldiers, here buried." Here, when our troops took the German front
line on the 1st July, it was one of their first cares to bury the
French comrades who fell while holding this part of the front during
the winter, whose bodies could not be retrieved at the time of their
death, from under the fire of German machine-guns, and, when recovered
at last, were beyond all chance of identification. Near La Boisselle,
again, is a cross inexpertly made of two pieces of lath, and lettered
in pencil: "In loving memory of 2nd Lieut. X., ---- Regiment, killed
here, July 1st, 1916." It stands scarcely ten feet in front of the line
from which our army advanced on that morning. You feel, when you see
it, the thrill of the first moment of the long battle of the Somme--the
subaltern giving the word to his men, and himself springing first out
of the trench, and falling almost at once, and the men pressing on.

That is a special case of a grave on a site more monumental than
Westminster Abbey itself. A few such graves, and some part of the
trenches near them, will probably be preserved for ever by village
communes or private owners of land, as memorials and relics of the
great war. But not every man can be buried just where he falls. As a
rule, the spot remains under fire for some time after his death. Even
if it could be done, and the history of the war be left written in
this way on the face of the country,--a long dotted line of graves
representing a trench, a cluster of graves a skirmish, a dense
constellation a battle--the record would not be durable. France could
not fence off a strip of country 300 miles long and many miles wide,
and keep it up as a historical museum. And nothing else could preserve
all the graves, or most of them. Some would be treasured and tended,
as they are now, by farmers and cottagers. Others would soon be lost
sight of. In a few months the earth of a newly made grave sinks in, the
cross falls awry, and may split, the writing on it is weathered away.
Unless something is done, and done promptly, every trace of an outlying
grave may be gone in a year. That is what might have happened to
thousands of British and French soldiers' graves if an Englishman, full
of goodwill and energy, had not noticed the danger in time, and stepped
in, with a few like-minded friends, to avert it.

How the work was begun, and how it has grown, may next be described.


In the autumn of 1914, the necessity for a continued organization to
undertake the supervision of graves was recognised, both from the
point of view of national feeling, and to discourage the disconnected
and spasmodic efforts of private individuals, which were threatening
to create friction and confusion. The services of Mr. Fabian Waro,
who, while employed under the British Red Cross with French troops,
had already interested himself in the subject, were obtained by the
Army, and, later, this gentleman was granted a commission in order
to supervise the department of which he is now Director. It was not
until March, 1915, that the organization of the Commission of Graves
Registration and Enquiries finally assumed its present shape.

Under the Directorate are the Graves Registration Units in the
different spheres of military activity. In France and Belgium there
are four of these units, each with their two or three sections. Three
of the four units divide the British front between them, from north of
Ypres to the Somme battlefield. The fourth unit deals with everything
outside and behind the beats of these three. When an officer or man is
killed at the front, or dies of wounds, his burial is at once reported
to the Director as well as to the base. If killed in action, he may
still be buried, in the old way, somewhere near the trench. If so, the
chaplain or officer who buries him reports the position of the grave,
and one of the officers of the Graves Registration Units visits it,
verifies the record, affixes, if necessary, a durable cross, with the
date, the man's name, rank, regiment and regimental number upon it,
clearly stamped on aluminium tape, and enters these particulars and
the exact site of the grave in the register. But this mode of burial
is becoming much less common. The Army has been quick to realise
the desirability of burying its dead in the nearest of the 300 or
more recognised cemeteries behind the line. The bodies are carried
back by road or light railway to one of the little wooden, iron, or
canvas mortuaries which the Graves Registration Units have set up in
the cemeteries. There the soldiers in charge of the cemetery do all
that remains to be done, and an eye-witness can assure the friends
of soldiers at home that there is nothing perfunctory about these
funerals. Everything is done as tenderly and reverently as if the dead
man were in an English churchyard among themselves.

When a death takes place in a hospital, there is, of course, a regular
cemetery at hand, and registration is simple.

Some of the cemeteries are great extensions of little village
graveyards. Some were begun by special corps or divisions, which
wished to bury their dead all together. In one you find a separate
plot, each with its special entrance, for Gurkhas, Sikhs and Punjabis.
Under the great trees of another, where are many of those who fell at
Festhubert, some of our Indian soldiers have built, for their comrades,
brick tombs of extraordinary massiveness. At Villers-aux-Bois the
French buried 2,500 of those who were killed in winning the Vimy Ridge.
On each grave, at the foot of its wooden cross, there is still stuck
in the earth, neck downwards, the bottle in which the first hasty
record of the interment was placed. A tiny chapel at one end shelters
the Christ brought from the ruined Calvary of Carency, and a little
coloured image of the Virgin riddled with German bullet-holes. In all
the cemeteries the Graves Registration Units keep the graves, British
and French, in repair; they sow grass and plant flowers and shrubs,
under the advice of the Headquarters of British gardening at Kew. A few
of these places are already gay with autumn flowers in full bloom.
More will be brightened in this way next year, when all the arrears of
tidying and restoration that the units found waiting for them have been

Outside the cemeteries themselves an immense amount of work is done.
The staffs of the units are constantly searching all possible and
almost impossible places for isolated graves that may have escaped
registration. The Directorate answers every enquiry[A] sent by a
soldier's friends, and will, if they wish, take a photograph of a grave
and send it to them, for nothing, thanks to the funds provided for this
purpose by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and
St. John's Ambulance. The Director and his officers co-operate with the
French engineers, sanitary authorities and communal councils in making
arrangements to take advantage of the noble and moving gift made by
the French nation on December 29th, 1915, when the law was passed which
acquires for ever, in the name of the French Government, the special
cemeteries where most of our dead in France are buried.

No money is wasted, and no energy is diverted that might have been
spent in fighting; all the officers of the units are men disqualified
by age, or other disability, for combatant service; the other ranks
are filled with men permanently relegated, through age, wounds, or
sickness, to duty behind the front. But much of the work is done under
fire. One officer, Captain J. D. Macdonald, has already been killed on
duty, and two others and several men wounded.

In all wars it has been one of the fears haunting a soldier's friends
that his body may be utterly lost. Even in this war there have been
such irretrievable losses. But in no great war has so much been done as
in this, to prevent the addition of that special torment to the pains
of anxiety and of bereavement.

                  _Printed in Great Britain by
  Eyre & Spottiswoode, Ltd., East Harding Street, London, E.C._


[A] _All enquiries should be by letter, addressed to_:--

  Director of Graves Registration and Enquiries,
      War Office, Winchester House,
           St. James's Square,
                London, S.W.

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