BRING THEM HOME - THE CAMPAIGN FOR THE REPATRIATION OF THE WAR DEAD
The Armistice and the Versailles Treaty were just steps along the road to a return to something resembling normal. Many men were still listed as ‘missing’, and there were weekly reports of men succumbing to their wounds. The men who had returned didn’t talk about the war, and if they did how could their families understand, and then there were the war widows. The families had not attended a funeral and their men were buried in a foreign field with the plans for the war cemeteries still being developed.
The decision had been made some year earlier that the British dead would not be repatriated, but despite that some 30 men were brought home for burial. The last of these was Lt W C G Gladstone, 3rd Battalion, and Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He had been elected as Liberal Member of Parliament for Kilmarnock Burghs in 1911, but enlisted in August 1914. He was the grandson of the former Prime Minister and had been educated at Eton and New College, Oxford.
Lt Gladstone was shot by a sniper near Lavantie on 15th August, three weeks after arriving in France, having been warned of the presence of a sniper in the area. He was buried in France but nine days later his body was exhumed and brought back to Britain for burial. It is believed that King George gave permission for the body to be brought home. The funeral procession for Lt Gladstone left his family home, Hawarden Castle on 23rd April and moved through large crowds to St Deiniol’s Churchyard, Hawarden, Flintshire.
The only other known to be returned to Britain for burial was the ‘unknown warrior’ in November 1920, although the body of the executed nurse Edith Cavell was repatriated in 1919.
A Canadian mother, Anna Durie, went to great lengths to have her sons’ body returned home. Captain William Arthur Durie was killed near Lens on 29th December 1917 and buried at Corkscrew Cemetery. His distraught mother questioned whether it was his body in the grave and if it was, she wished to return his body to Canada. She attempted in 1921 to remove her son’s coffin. She wrote to the Commission ‘I was going like a criminal by night to exhume the body of one of the bravest officers that ever left Canada’. She also threatened anyone else who attempted to move William’s grave.
Mrs Durie was therefore very angry when she heard in March 1925 that William’s body had been moved from Corkscrew Cemetery to the larger Loos British Cemetery. She wrote to Fabian Ware pointing out that relatives had not been informed of this, describing those who had made the decision as tyrannical and autocratic, and Ware’s actions as unworthy of a British officer.
The next development was in July 1925, a report in the CWGC archive notes that gardener’s discovered that Captain Durie’s grave had been opened and ‘the coffin was found to have been forced open’. The coffin was empty with the exception of ‘a few small pieces of bone and some fragments of clothing’. It appears the remains had been dug up and sent to Canada in a packing case.
The Toronto Daily Star reported the funeral of Captain Durie at St James Cemetery, Toronto on 22nd August 1925. His mother and sister were present and the newspaper reported they had ‘after eight years of effort they had succeeded in obtaining the custody of his remains’. They did not explain ‘succeeded in obtaining custody of the remains’ but Mrs Durie never acknowledged her involvement. She even returned the form for the inscription on his grave in France, ‘He took the only way and followed it unto the glorious end’.
There were many women in Britain who also wished for the return of their husband’s and son’s remains. One of the leaders of the movement was a Leeds housewife, Sarah Smith. Her 19 year old son had died of wounds in 1918 and was buried at Grevillers, British Cemetery. Her petition to The Prince of Wales in May 1919 had over 2,500 signatures. The concern was that many would not be able to visit the graves of their loved ones either because they could not afford it or because of ill health. The response was predictable as clearly repatriating the graves of nearly 800,000 men scattered all over the world would have been a very challenging if not impossible task. One thinks as well of those many thousands whose men have no known grave and are ‘Known unto God’.
By 1922 the British War Graves Association based in Leeds had over 3,000 members but over the years their demands developed. They wanted all bodies returned from Germany, they wanted all those moved to a ‘concentration cemetery ‘ to be buried in a coffin, they wanted improved legibility of the engraving on headstones and perhaps most significant they wanted Government funding for all to visit graves.
On her death in 1936 The War Graves Commission paid tribute to Sarah Smith for her most valuable services on behalf of the bereaved.
Another prominent member of the British War Graves Association was Lady Florence Cecil, the wife of the Bishop of Exeter. She launched her own petition to the Prince of Wales in 1919. The petition was to protest at the chosen design of the CWGC gravestone which we have come to admire. The petitioners wanted a cruciform shaped marker – a Christian Cross.
Lady Cecil had lost three sons in the war; Lt Rupert Edward Gascoyne-Cecil was killed in action in July 1915. A German mine exploded close to his trench.
Private Randle William Gascoyne-Cecil, 15th Canadian Infantry Regiment was killed on 1st December 1917.
Captain John Arthur Gascoyne-Cecil M.C, Royal Field Artillery (75th Brigade) was killed 27th August 1918.
Perhaps the last word should go to the father of two ‘dear boys’ who were killed in France. He wrote to thank the then IWGC for although he would like to see them in his local cemetery he felt it appropriate that where ‘those brave lads fought and fell together is a very fitting place for them to rest in peace’