HC Deb 17 December 1919 vol 123 cc485-512

I rose really to call attention to quite a different subject—one which undoubtedly excites a very great deal of painful interest, and that is the administration of the Imperial War Graves Commission, It is a difficult and painful subject to discuss, and I only raise it because I am quite convinced that, no doubt unintentionally, the policy adopted by the Imperial War Graves Commission is inflicting great pain and suffering on those who really have a just claim on the consideration of this House, a result which, I am sure, is quite unjustifiable. I have no desire to make a general attack on the Commission. Its position is an exceptionally difficult one. The first portion of the work began under General Fabian Ware, and I think very few bodies worked better or did better work than the original Graves Commission, by whatever name it was known. I have no doubt that the work which was clone by it in the matter of identification of graves, and so on, was of the highest possible importance, and it was, as I happen to know, most deeply appreciated by many of the relatives. I do not think, indeed, that anyone had any complaint to make of the way in which the work was done. But, unfortunately, at some period in this year the thing was transformed into a much more elaborate and much more official Commission, on which were placed a number of excellent persons, who no doubt had every right to be there, in addition to technical advisers, military and otherwise. I do not think it operated quite in this form until after the War, but it then became more formal and a more official body, and approached the subject from a different point of view—a far more official and bureaucratic point of view. I cannot help thinking that the result was disastrous. We had a complete change of attitude on this question, and the matter has now assumed the aspect—I hesitate to use strong language, but I really can think of no other words—of heartless official action, and is inflicting, as I know in fact to be beyond all controversy, the greatest possible pain on a very great number of relatives of those who have fallen. I have seen letter after letter on the subject, and I will quote some to the House before I sit down.

6.0 P.M.

I want to present two views which may be taken on this subject. You may regard a memorial to the dead as an impersonal national memorial. That is perfectly right and perfectly legitimate. All over the country it is popular to erect monuments—call them what you may—which most readily express the general national feeling, and it may be sectional feeling as well, towards a group of those who have given their lives for their country. Then, in addition to that, there is a quite different kind of memorial. There is the memorial to the individual who has fallen. Normally we know it is an expression by those who survive of some of their deepest feelings—of their personal loss—and it does excite, and always has done, most profound emotion. The graves of the dead have always been throughout history one of the centres of emotional writings of the most touching kind, and our literature is full of references to that subject. I have no doubt hon. Members will entirely agree to that proposition, but if they require any confirmation of it they will recollect the bitter fights—bitter because they arouse deep feelings—over the question of the guardianship of the burial grounds, and things of that kind. Anything which touches the burial of the dead is always a subject that cannot help exciting the deepest possible feeling. If, you have these two things before you, the impersonal view of a general memorial recording great acts of heriosm, and the personal memorial to the individuals who have fallen and whose death has been a grievous loss and a terrible sorrow to those who remain, I think the House will see immediately there are two ways of regarding the memorials put up to the individual soldiers in France. To my mind, it is the second that attention should be fixed on. It is not the proper function of a number of gravestones erected to individuals to commemorate the national side of it so much as the actual personal loss, and, in point of fact, you have really to consider it from the point of view of this country to see how strongly that would be felt. It applies equally to both officers and men. Quite as strong feelings exist about the men as about the officers. No question of class arises at all. If you proposed that an identical sealed pattern tombstone should be put up to the commemoration of all those soldiers and officers who died in hospital and were buried in cemeteries here you would have a revolution. No one would tolerate it for a moment. I see no difference in principle when you get to France. There are difficulties of practical execution which ought to be met, but, in principle, the same thing ought to prevail. The memorial to the individual and the expression of the great sorrow and grief which his relatives have suffered through his loss ought to be the primary aspect of it. I am forced to say that there are at least three grave evils which are alleged against the operation of the War Graves Commission, all of which I think proceed because they regarded the thing front a too bureaucratic and official point of view, and have lost sight of the individual and personal point of view. In the first place, I have read a number of letters which complain bitterly of the actual neglect of existing graves. I will read one or two of these complaints: At Le Cateau, where the Germans buried all the English on one side, the Germans on the other, nothing could be nicer, and I live in dread lest the War Graves Commission may want to disturb it and remove the English.

Here is another: I have recently returned from visiting the British military cemetery at such-and-such a place, and I was appalled at the state of things there. The graves and paths are one tangled mass of weeds and tall rank grass, the tiny crosses are black and falling sideways in many cases and barely standing. The cemetery is a heart-breaking wilderness of neglect. The few American and French graves have been looked after, but the greater part of our British loved one's graves are a crying disgrace to our own country, especially so when one knows that need not be.

Another letter, written in. October this year, says: The condition of these cemeteries was disgraceful.

I have no doubt I could find a number of other quotations. That is one thing. I quite admit that that must and will be treated by the House with great leniency, because I admit the enormous size of the problem which has to be dealt with, and I merely call attention to it because I think the Imperial War Graves Commis- sion might well have devoted their principal energy to solving that instead of harrowing people's feelings.

The second great grievance I have to mention is that in a number of cases the bodies and the memorials have been removed and placed elsewhere. I am sure that is done even in cases where they are buried in existing French cemeteries. I cannot understand why it should be done. Whether it is done in all cases I do not know, but certainly this kind of case is complained of. Here is a letter on the subject: I am particularly interested because of my son's grave, which is near the village of Doullens. Here lie about a thousand bodies of men who fell in the Air Service. Some of these have crosses made out of aeroplane propellers, parts of aeroplanes, and in the case of my son a cross of iron made out of a smashed motor lorry and an aeroplane with the centre made in brass from a shell case fired on the field, there exists a permanent memorial. It was made by his brother officers as a personal tribute. It will last for generations. It will be difficult to conceive of a simpler or more durable grave mark, and there are many others of which I can say the same.

In another case there is an oak cross. It was only after an embittered correspondence with the Commission, in which I described such an act as an insult to the honoured dead, that they undertook not to remove the cross until they communicated further-with me.

All that seems to me a complete misapprehension of the real substance of the difficulties they have to deal with. The most important is the attempt to enforce on everyone a particular pattern of tombstone. I cannot conceive how it can have entered the mind of men that that could be a really appropriate way of commemorating an individual's death. I only read this letter to show the deep feeling which has, in fact, been excited: When my boy was killed I was touched by the action of the Craves Commission, and the sympathetic way they dealt with my request for particulars, and was very grateful to them for all the trouble they took, but this handing over the cemeteries to a commission of architects, antiquarians and Government officials I resent very much.

Here is another in September this year: I do not know how convicts are buried at Dartmoor, but I should think like that.

Again: It is very hard that we are not to be allowed our own choice. I feel very deeply that this might be granted to us with a clause that no memorial must be erected above a certain sum.

Again: We wish most strongly to put up our own memorials to our two dear suns if possible.

Again: I think we all ought to be given the power or the chance of putting up something not more than 3 feet high or to lay down a granite or marble cross if we wish. The very poor are accustomed to put up something in memory of their dead.

Again: So many people have said to me that the originally proposed headstones in rows would be like nothing so much as a dog's cemetery, and unpleasant though the comparison is it is apposite.

That is a selection I have taken from a large number of letters, and the number of letters I saw were themselves a selection from a still larger number. I do not think any Government has a right to inflict pain of that kind unless there is some overmastering reason why they should do so. What is the reason? There are two. There is a certain number of people who have what they consider an artistic conception of a graveyard and desire to have something which they can design and will do credit to them as the authors of these graveyards, and no doubt a beautiful object in itself. I protest against that. It really is not right to play with people's feelings in order to produce an artistic effect. There is nothing so changeable as artistic opinion. A thing that is thought beautiful in one generation is thought hideous in the next, and a thing that we may do under the advice of some skilled architect in the cemeteries in France is almost certain to be condemned by the generation that comes after them. It seems to me almost useless to put that forward as a reason for the action that is being taken. There are two other grounds. There is the military ground of liking to have a lot of rows, I suppose in likeness to a regiment of soldiers and a desire to have the thing properly drilled. I have no sympathy with that at all. That is not the proper attitude to approach this question. There is, lastly, the ground, which I have heard my right hon. Friend refer to, which seems to me an entire misapprehension. He says everyone ought to be treated equally. I desire that they should all be treated equally. No one wishes that a. different kind of monument should be erected by the State to an officer and to a man. Let the contribution of the State be the same in every case. That is only right and proper. Why on earth, within certain limits which are imposed by the necessities of the case, should not the relatives be allowed to put up the monument which best expresses their grief. I know that space is limited, and the number of bodies unhappily is very great. I should have no objection to a rule that any monument should not exceed a certain size. I should not myself object to saying that it should not exceed, even with the Government contribution, a certain expense. What I protest against is that the Government should say: "You are to have a round pedestal and nothing else." There are many who attach the greatest possible importance to the symbols on these graves. I know many are passionately desirous to erect a cross. That may seem perfectly extravagant to the official mind, but it is felt deeply and it is no use telling people something else will do just as well. These things touch the very depths of emotion, and cannot be treated officially and bureaucratically at all. I am told precisely the same policy is being pursued in Palestine, where there is no question of size—immense space is open—merely from bureaucratic tyranny and the desire to force on everyone what the bureaucratic mind thinks is most fitting. If the Government does not give directions to the War Graves Commission to consider primarily the feelings of the relatives, they are going to inflict an amount of hardship and grief on those who ought to be the special care of this House, which it is impossible to exaggerate. I hope the Government will see fit to give the matter very serious and sympathetic consideration.

Captain BROWN

I am sorry to find myself in disagreement with the Noble Lord, but I feel that he has exaggerated the claims of the parents and minimised the claims of the State. I do not wish to give pain to any parent, but surely we might consider a little bit what possibly the soldiers themselves would have thought, supposing one could ask them what they would like done to their mortal remains. It seems to me a reasonable supposition that many of these soldiers, if they had been asked, would have said, "We would like to lie with those who fought and died beside us." Therefore, while the Noble. Lord rather cast ridicule at the lines of graves there is a great deal of sentiment about it, to know that these men are lying together as they fell in battle, and that their graves are uniform, like the regiments to which they belonged.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

They have been moved.

Captain BROWN

The hon. and gallant Member for Hull says that they have all been moved.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

Some of them.

Captain BROWN

I quite agree that it was impossible to leave them exactly where they lay in the trenches. Subject to that in these large cemeteries it was the only possible way of dealing with the question. If you are going to allow every parent to have the right to put up whatever form of cross or tombstone they want, where are you going to stop? You are bound by limitations of space, and what sort of tombstones they are going to erect. All tastes are not alike, and stones put up by some people would perhaps be very distasteful to the relatives of some of the men lying near by. If you are going to allow that, why not carry the thing further and say that the parents can have the bodies of these soldiers? I can testify that there are many people who claim that it is their absolute right to have the bodies of their own sons or other relatives brought home and buried in their own churchyards.


Why not?

Captain BROWN

The main governing reason is transport.


Is it impossible?

Captain BROWN

For many years we cannot consider bringing back the bodies, and the difficulties of transport which apply to the bodies will be equally great as applied to the tombstones. Even if the Government did allow it, it would be many years before the transport could be found to take over the private tombstones. There is another aspect. of this question. I have seen many graveyards, some I have seen have not impressed me very much. Those of the Franco-Prussian war are the most desolate graveyards that anyone could see. On the other hand, I have seen one graveyard in India which I consider to be one of the most sacred memorials I have ever seen. It was at Cawnpore. I have never seen anything so expressive as a national graveyard. If you are to allow variety now right through the graveyards, how are you going to build and organise a national memorial in these graveyards in the future? All these varieties of crosses and private tombstones will have to be taken away and put on the scrapheap or broken up. Under the present pro- posal the tombstones with their records will form the wall which will surround the graveyard of the future. Those who lie there do not belong to this generation only. We have to see that they lie there as a memorial to future generations, and it is of the utmost importance that we should so regulate and plan these graveyards that., while being beautiful now, they will be far more solemn and wonderful sights to those of our children who come afterwards.


I want to throw any little weight I have on the side of the hon. Member who has just spoken. My desire is to give the point of view of a man who has been out there and the point of view of the men who lie there now. We did not think very much about death when we were out there, but we did think a great deal of comradeship, and I cannot imagine that any man who is now lying out there would like to think that because possibly his friends or relatives had more money than others they were able to erect a better or more magnificent tombstone over his remains than poorer people would be able to put over their sons. I have a brother who died out there, who in his lifetime always looked after his men. That was his chief effort, and the same remark applies to every other officer and non-commisioned officer out there. I know that he thought, and the others would think, that there could be no higher memorial given them, now they are dead, than that they should have the same tombstones as everyone else who fought and fell out there.


I should like very strongly to endorse the views of the Noble Lord. There is a great deal of misunderstanding from the point of view of the last two speakers. I stand here as a parent interested in this question, and I have seen letters from mothers on this subject who desire not to erect any gorgeous tombstone over the remains of their sons, but that they might be allowed to have a little individual choice and, in a great many cases, to erect a cross which, I understand, has been refused by the War Office. I appreciate very much the point of view of the Government that they are going to take care of these graveyards in the future. That is perfectly right. I also understand from direct correspondence that the Government are removing the bodies that are buried in cemeteries of less than fifty and collecting them in larger cemeteries. That will probably meet the difficulties of the last two speakers. These bodies will be collected into a larger graveyard and taken care of by the Government. At the same time, it is an unnecessary act of bureaucracy and military control to interfere with parents putting small tombstones, which will be perfectly proper, over the remains of officers or privates. There is no question of a great deal of money being spent on the tombstones. I understand, however, that there has been a direct refusal to allow anything but a mere tablet. There are many people who have strong religious feelings and who wish to put up a cross. The reason given against the erection of crosses is that they would not last so long as a tombstone. A very simple granite cross will last a great many years, and I do not think it is a wise act of the War Office to oppose the erection of a cross provided that there are suitable inscriptions, and that not too much money is spent upon them, thereby providing against one tombstone being grander than another. I hope the War Office will see their way not to interfere with parents who wish to show some slight mark of respect to their lost relatives. To make it a matter of taste is a very great mistake. We have appreciated very much in our country churchyards, the placing of a few flowers upon the graves, or the placing on the grave of some little remembrance by the parents, although these tokens of remembrance may not be as artistic as we would like. That is not the object of any token of remembrance on a tombstone. I hope that the War Office will see their way to remove these unnecessary restrictions on parents and relatives of those who have given their dear ones.


It is a pity that this subject has been brought up, but it is better that it should be discussed here than in the columns of the "Times." Those who take a passionate interest in a small plot of land in France, and those who have taken the trouble, as I have, to go out and search and to see the work actually in progress, can have nothing but admiration for the way in which those who are doing that work are treating the dead. In the particular case to which I am referring the loss had taken place on a field of battle which had been swept again and again. It was swept again in March, 1918, and again in the retreat of the enemy in July. By last June the whole of that field had been cleared of British bodies, isolated burials, many of them in shell-holes and other places, and the bodies had been collected and buried in a beautiful little cemetery which had been formed on the side of the main road close by. The cemetery commanded views which would be unparalleled in France when that devastated country comes back to its own again. I gratefully recognise with reverence all the care which was being taken by the men engaged in this work. No order of lay brethren attached to any religious house could do their work more thoroughly and more carefully. The men worked behind high screens which were erected so that no persons through mere curiosity could see what was going on. Then they arranged the plots as nearly as possible together, which they were bound to do.

With regard to the question of crosses, I can answer that criticism by saying that the graves are so narrow that it is almost impossible to have anything like diversity of monuments. Take the British graveyard to which I have referred; the winter frosts sweeping over it would crack and break any marble tombstones put up. The last speaker said something about granite, but it is almost impossible that you can get granite sufficiently small to suit the little patch of ground allotted to each grave. As at present arranged these graves leave nothing to be desired in the manner in which they are set up and the care with which they are plotted. Nothing further can be desired to complete what the average Englishman would wish. The Noble Lord spoke of the absence of symbols to which I agree many people are passionately attached. I yield to nobody in my desire to illustrate our cemeteries and burying places by the symbol of the Cross. But the Cross is permitted to be inscribed on the stone, and we must bear in mind that it is absolutely necessary, if we are going to maintain those graveyards in years to come when this War has faded into the past, that we must have them arranged in such a form that they may be kept in order with the least possible difficulty, and the present arrangement of having a uniform shape for the monuments apart from what is on them seems to me desirable, and I believe that in the end it will justify the choice which has been made.


I fully admit the strength of the arguments adduced by the hon. and learned Member, and also the moderation and good sense with which he has urged them. We certainly, who are protesting against this over monotony, would not speak in that sense if it implied any lack of full appreciation of the tender care and reverence which have been shown by those in charge of these graveyards. Certainly I would not be speaking in that sense if it meant that this power of choice involved any disagreeable mark or division between people of different degrees of wealth and station, or if tended, as was hinted in the interesting speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Liverpool, to separate those united in the comradeship of death. There must be limitations in regard to cost, and there must be limitations as regards the size of the monument, but we believe that much greater variety should be permitted in view of the desire of those who have lost those dear to them. We may have all our own views on these matters. Personally, I do not attach as much importance as some do, and I say it with all humility, to those outward memorials. I have seen, what many of us I am sure have seen, and what is perhaps the most impressive of funeral ceremonies, a burial at sea, where we commit our brother not to a grave dug by human hands, but to the bosom of the illimitable ocean where in place of the grass turf there will be the never-ending ripple of the waves, and where in place of monument there will be only the sentinel ship of the eternal stars. But whatever our opinion on the matter is, it all sinks into insignificance before the one supreme duty which is to attend, first of all, to the wishes of those who have been bereaved, and I would protest in their names against this too rigid control.

Many of us are beginning to kick and goad against various types of this over-control. This is only one specimen of it. We are controlled from the time we are born to the time we die, from the time we get up until the time we go to bed, from the rising of the lark to the couching of the lamb. In reference to everything which we wish we are told by some Ministerial authority that it cannot be done. If there is one thing which is becoming more irksome than another it is the control not of a responsible Minister but of some Committee or Commission which he appoints under him, and which has no such responsibility. That Committee entrenches itself behind the authority of the Minister, and from that secure shelter plays the tyrant. It is impossible for the Minister to look into all that it does—he has far too much to do—or to weigh all its decisions. But these Committees have neither salaries to be docked nor souls to be saved (or otherwise), nor bodies to be kicked. They are independent of us here, and they act in the spirit of that independence. I know that the Secretary of State has a full desire to meet the wishes of the various individuals who are concerned, and I ask him to exercise his judgment, which I am sure is sympathetic.

Is it monotony which will best express the feelings of the nation? What is the beauty of our churchyards? Is it that they are monotonous? Is it that they are drilled in a certain way? Are we to drill these churchyards in a certain way according to the pattern of the military martinet who wishes everything to be reduced to regularity in a graveyard? How far is this monotony to go on? Are we to prescribe the sort of flowers that are to be laid on the tombstones? Is everyone to be forced to have the same colour? No. We have one duty, and what we must do is, within all reasonable limitations which we are ready to observe, to give as much freedom as possible to the individual sentiment of the bereaved, that sentiment which prompts them to desire that the memory of their lost ones should be linked with the symbol of their religious faith.


I desire to say a few words in support of what was said by the Noble Lord the Member for the Hitchin Division. I join with him in expressing the hope that the War Office may see its way to allow a little more latitude than it is allowing with regard to some alteration in the stereotyped form of memorial which is now being placed over the grave of every soldier who died for his country. I feel that I have a right to say a few words on this subject, because it was my painful duty to read the burial service over, unfortunately, a very large number of my comrades who were killed in action. I am speaking of the days before a padre was attached to every battalion. In those days we only had one for every brigade, and they rightly felt it to be their duty to give their time to attending the sick, wounded, and dying rather than to burying those who had passed beyond human aid. Therefore it fell to my commanding officer and myself—I was second in com- mand in those days—to perform the last rites over our men, and we made it a point that none of our men should be buried without, at any rate, a few words of prayer being said over him, and I know that many bereaved parents have told me that they would like a memorial which is more symbolic of the faith in which their children died placed over their beloved dead.

I know that this subject is one which bristles with difficulties. If we once start allowing latitude, it will be very difficult to know how far we may go. In addition to that, the steps which the War Office have taken in that direction hitherto do not give much encouragement to me to hope for better things. I think I am right in saying that quite recently they have decided to allow an inscription chosen by the parents or next-of-kin to be inscribed on a tombstone. That inscription was conveyed to the next-of-kin in what I think I may describe as a singularly tactless letter, informing them of the fact, and that the cost of doing this would be 2½d. a word. If that is the method in which they were informed that alterations might be made on the tombstones I think that it would be better perhaps if things were left as they were. But surely it would be possible to inform them that some small alterations could be made. We cannot ask anything very large because there is no room for it, and it would never do to have wide divergencies in these small and unfortunately rather over-crowded graveyards. But I do hope that something may be done to fall in with the views which have been expressed to me so often by parents and widows, that they would like some symbol more than the plain cross on the tombstone which is all that is at present allowed.

With regard to the suggestion that the memorials placed over the dead by their -comrades should be left, and that the bodies should be left where they were buried, I sympathise with it but fear it is utterly impossible. Those bodies were scattered everywhere, wherever there had been any serious fighting, and the memorials which were placed over them were not of a permanent nature. In many cases they were only the smallest crosses, made perhaps out of a biscuit box, with the name inscribed on it in indelible pencil, and perhaps the place was not invariably well chosen. I have a case in mind. We were holding the line at a certain place. The battalion headquarters were in a ruined chateau. The place which we chose as the battalion graveyard was the lawn of the chateau. I do not know why we chose that place except that it looked nice and green, and that there were trees and roses about. But I can quite understand that if that chateau is ever rebuilt the owners of it may not be too pleased to have almost in front of their drawing-room window a burial-ground. I can understand that in those circumstances perhaps it is impossible to leave those dead where they were first buried, and it is necessary to collect them into these cemeteries which have been such a fertile topic of discussion during the past few months. The crosses which were put up were not permanent, and in many cases, I am afraid, the name has been washed out and the cross had been knocked down or carried away. That cannot be helped, but I think it disposes of the suggestion that it would be in any way possible to leave the men where their comrades placed them, and with the memorial that their comrades placed over them. At the same time, if the War Office authorities can see their way to grant some latitude to parents and to allow a memorial more symbolical of the faith in which the men died to be placed above them, they will be earning the gratitude of many bereaved parents and widows.

Lieut. - Colonel ALLEN

Perhaps an Irishman may be allowed for a few moments to intrude upon this Debate. I represent a regiment, one of whose battalions had upwards of 16,000 casualties. I have no doubt that many of the difficulties which have been mentioned by the Noble Lord will be healed by time; others will never be healed. Those of us who have seen something of the work done out there and of the havoc that was played with our men, know perfectly well that there are parents who can never see the tombstone or cross put up to the memory of their dead. There are other cases where crosses have been found broken down in cemeteries, and the places generally disturbed. I remember on one occasion we had a cemetery prepared for our dead. Then the retreat came, and then our advance, and on advancing over the same ground we found the cemeteries almost obliterated. Then, again, I have no doubt that those who are responsible in France and Belgium for looking after these cemeteries must take time to gather all the bodies into one place. Since the Armistice I have had the privilege of visiting a good deal of the ground, and as late as June last the little wooden crosses could be seen scattered all over the country. Time will obliterate these, but time will not obliterate the sorrows of those who mourn their beloved dead. I think the Noble Lord has been rather misunderstood with reference to the lines of graves. I do not think that his complaint was so much about the line of headstones as against a line of headstones of a similar character. Personally I see no difficulty whatever in allowing stones of a different character to be placed in those positions. If necessary All the stones can be of one particular material. There need be no additional cost, and no less cost, for any of these particular stones. They should, in fact, all be of about the same cost. I do not think there is much in the argument that one family might put up a more costly headstone than another. There is a limited amount which one can spend in a particular size of headstone. Some time ago, when we were in France, we had a communication from headquarters at home, asking us to submit the design which we as a regiment, or as a battalion, would like to put over our dead. I have no doubt that as many men have as many ideas, and very different ideas were submitted on that occasion. I saw a great many of those that were submitted. The officials, as far as I know, turned them all down. I know one Irish regiment which suggested an ancient Celtic cross, one of the most beautiful memorials that could be erected, and of wonderful historic value. Of course that amongst others was turned down. Being an Irishman, I suppose an Irishman is known only when he has a grievance. I received this morning a letter from a friend's home. It is not bearing so much on the question of headstones, or on the character of them. It is the letter of a father who writes: For a long time I have been endeavouring to get a full account of my son's grave in France from the Director of Graves Registration. But they always put me off. They have not located the grave, although on 13th March, 1919, I gave them full particulars as to where my son was buried in France. I think that is a just cause of complaint. There are officers out there whose only duty is to carry out work like this. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make such inquiries as will obviate the necessity of such letters being written. I am very glad that the Noble Lord has introduced this question, and although I think it would be imposible to satisfy everyone, yet I believe that the Graves Commission can go a long way to satisfy the majority of the parents of the dead.


While I can support the principle of uniformity in general, I would join in the appeal for a certain amount of elasticity, even within the limits prescribed. It seems to me it would be possible for those who value the symbol of the Cross to have a standard cross, even within the limits that must be laid down by space. I suggest, too, that the War Office should allow more lettering than was originally provided. Parents tell me that it is impossible for them to find room for reference to the relationship which the dead bore to those who remain behind. Although it is necessary that the dead should be designated by their military rank, at the same time some connecting link with the loved ones left behind is desirable. With regard to the general question of uniformity, I join with those who have already spoken. It has been urged that we should have regard to the wishes of the dead. As one who served in the ranks, I, perhaps, have come in contact with the mind of the private soldier, and I must say that our wish was that we should be buried as we fell. We served in a common cause, we suffered equal hardships, we took equal risks, and we desired that if we fell we should be buried together under one general system and in one comradeship of death. There is no more impressive sight than a small graveyard near Ypres, where there is the grave of a Prince of the blood Royal side by side with that of an ordinary "Tommy," both bearing exactly the same sort of wooden cross. I think it would do much to undo the value of the comradeship that was cemented by the War if afterwards we had a considerable distinction made, measured by the wealth of those who remain behind rather than by the service given overseas. I know it has been suggested that that question could not come in to any great extent, and that within the limited space allowed the question of varying expense would not be possible. I think it would. We saw in the French civilian cemeteries the extraordinary waste of money, the extraordinary differences in the stones that were erected, in pointed contrast to the simplicity and beauty which we have in our own graveyards. I submit that it is not merely the bureaucratic and military mind which lays down this uniformity. In the Quaker- burial-grounds of our country—not, a military organisation, by any means—you have exactly the same uniformity—uniformity from the point of view of simplicity—as you have in the burial-grounds of the battlefield.


Why does the hon. and gallant Member want to force a Quaker, or uniform, or bureaucratic standard on anyone else's dead?

7.0 P.M.


I am not trying to force any one system on anybody. It has been suggested that uniformity was the type of the military and bureaucratic mind. It is not necessarily bureaucratic, it is not necessarily military, and I was arguing that there was a certain uniformity of style apart from those two particular predisposing causes. I would appeal to the Secretary for War to see whether he cannot influence the Graves Commission to allow a certain amount of elasticity, to allow a cross, if preferred to a headstone, and to allow more lettering on the memorial, so that the identification of the relatives may be seen. I would ask also that where the propellers of aeroplanes have been used as grave memorials they might be allowed to remain as suitable memorials. An attack was made—at least it seemed to me to be an attack—upon the work of the Graves Department overseas. I would like to pay my tribute to their wonderful work and their care of the cemeteries. I cannot speak of what has happened since the Armistice, but during the two years that I was over there I saw many of the cemeteries close to the fighting line. It is wonderful the amount of care that was exercised by those in charge of them.


I expressly dissociated myself from any such attack. I am personally acquainted with those who were in charge, and I know that they did their work admirably. I said that it was since they have handed over the duty to the Imperial War Graves Commission that these objections—many of them rightly founded—have arisen.


I am sorry if I misunderstood the Noble Lord. Wonderful care was taken under trying circumstances. Many of the cemeteries were chosen with every regard to a pleasing situation, and it would be unfortunate if the feelings of parents were harried by thinking that their relatives' graves had been neglected.

Viscount WOLMER

I have had so many piteous appeals from parents and widows in my Constituency, and I feel so strongly upon this matter myself, that I cannot refrain from detaining the House for a few minutes. I listened with great. respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Captain Brown) and the hon. Member for Liverpool (Major Cohen), and I appreciate their very strong feelings on this question. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham said that he had a strong. feeling of sentiment in this matter. Of course he has, and so have we all; but our sentiments are not the same, and the question is, Who is to be the judge as to the proper expression of sentiment over a soldier's grave? Is it to be the bureaucracy or the relatives of the soldier? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, I also have a brother whose grave is in Mesopotamia, and I have as much right, as a relative, to say what form of remembrance shall be put over his grave, if it is ever found, as he has with regard to his brother. The whole point of this Debate, which I hope the War Office will appreciate, is what right has any one of us to dictate to other people as to how their nearest and dearest shall be commemorated? This is a matter which stirs the deepest feelings in thousands of deserted homes throughout the country. There are thousands of homes in which the tenderest memories are all centred in one tiny spot in France, Mesopotamia, Salonika, or Palestine. You are outraging their deepest sentiments, religious and otherwise, by dictating to them what shall be put over the grave of him whom they loved most.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool spoke of comradeship. He thought that any distinction in the tombstones went against the spirit of comradeship. Do, they not all lie together, shoulder to. shoulder, near the field of battle where they fell, in graveyards allotted to them and kept for them? Does not that emphasise the spirit of comradeship sufficiently and patently to all the world? If you are to say that you cannot get your spirit and emblem of comradeship without absolute uniformity, then I would respectfully say that you have no idea of true comradeship. Let the War Office keep their uniforms for the living; let them confine their drill-sergeants to those who walk about, but ward them off the hallowed precincts of our graveyards. Lot us remember that those bereaved widows, orphans, fathers, brothers, and sisters, have suffered a loss and a sacrifice on behalf of the nation which the nation can never never repay. The nation has tried to give adequate financial compensation to those who are in poor circumstances. The nation has tried to honour its honoured dead in every way, but it can never bring them back to those who have suffered the loss; and I say, therefore, that it is specially incumbent upon us to honour their tenderest feelings and to respect their prejudices, even if we think them only prejudices, as sacred and as hallowed, and to do everything that we can in order that the relatives of those who fell for the nation may not have their feelings outraged and injured by the military bureaucracy of the War Office.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Churchill)

I rather deprecate the asperity with which the Noble Lord (Lord R. Cecil) who introduced this subject approached and executed his task. This is a subject which requires to be treated, as it has been treated by every other speaker in the Debate, with feelings of tolerance and sympathy, and I regret very much that the Noble Lord should have addressed himself to it in a manner which suggested that he not only enjoyed superior wisdom, but that he had superior right feeling in a matter of this kind. The Noble Lord said some very hard things and quoted some very painful documents which do not, I believe, represent the true state of affairs. He suggested that the graves of British soldiers were worse looked after than those of the French. I am assured that is simply not true. It is quite possible that here or there isolated cases may still exist There are 1,500 approved cemetries in France alone, and there are 18,000 men who have been working for many months putting those cemeteries in order and collecting the graves into the larger cemeteries. They will he working all through the winter months, and it is expected that their task will be completed in the spring. It is an immense task. More than 160,000 scattered graves have to be treated, and these graves, lying about in this vast desert area, scores of miles from any remaining habitation of man, confront those who are charged with the task with every diffculty from the point of view of administration.

We heard from the hon. and learned Member for Ealing (Sir H. Nield), who paid a visit to some of these areas re cently, of the care and the reverence and the efficiency with which this work is being conducted. I do think that very great accumulations of evidence were required before the Noble Lord, with his responsible position, should, as it were, have given the impression to all those in this country to whom these matters are of exceptional and intense pain, that the graves of our comrades who fell in the War were being callously or carelessly neglected. That is not true. It is the reverse of the truth. Neither is the Noble Lord justified in reflecting upon the character of the Imperial War Graves Commission. He spoke of it as a bureaucratic, official body, proceeding with heartlessness upon its task, guided by the spirit of a drill sergeant—I think that was the Noble Lord opposite (Viscount Wolmer)—seeking some militaristic uniformity out of a mere desire to produce an artistic effect. Nothing is further from the truth. The Imperial War Graves Commission consists not only of British representatives, but of representatives of every one of the self-governing Dominions. The Secretary of State for War is, ex-officio, the president, and the members of the Commission are: The Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Secretary of State for India, the First Commissioner of Works, Sir George Perley, appointed by the Government of Canada., the Right Hon. Andrew Fisher, appointed by the Government of Australia, the Hon. Sir Thomas Mackenzie, appointed by the Government of New Zealand, the Right Hon. W. T. Schreiner (who has since died), appointed by the Government of the Union of South Africa, a representative appointed by the Government of Newfoundland, and the following other members who were also appointed by the Royal Warrant: Sir William Garstin, Mr. Harry Gosling, Mr. Rudyard Kipling, Lieut.-General Sir C. F. N. Macready, General Sir Herbert Plumer, Admiral Sir Edmund S. Poe, and Brigadier-General Fabian Ware, who is the executive officer in this matter.


I think there are only three or four of them who are non-official.


I do not think it is possible to gather together a body of men who could do more justice to the sombre and solemn task with which they are charged. I should like to point out that just reading this list through brings home to me the fact that at least three of the names that I have read are the names of men whose own sons died in the war zone, and there is not one but has feelings just as strong and passionate upon this subject as any Member of this House, and not one who has not dear friends and relatives lying on these battlefields. You may differ from the work of the Commission, you may differ from the course they recommended, and recommended unanimously after prolonged examination of this matter, and with no desire whatever but to give solace and a measure of comfort to the sorrowing homes of the British Empire, but no one has the right to impugn their sincerity or humanity or their earnest desire to assuage, every possible pang. The administrative task is a very formidable one. There are upwards of 500,000 graves that we know of for certain, and there are 100,000 others—themselves the cause of special difficulty—that the Commission are not yet completely certain about. The task of erecting within a reasonable time this immense number of monuments in all the different places where the cemeteries are to be set up is one which involves a great administrative problem, and it cannot be dealt with except on the basis of general principles.

I do not believe it would be possible—and all the evidence which has been put before me has convinced me it would not he possible—to achieve this work within the reasonable time that is necessary if that complete latitude which many would desire were accorded to individual wishes. In the first place, everyone who has spoken in this Debate has realised that the space of the individual graves must necessarily be small. That imposes physical limitations upon the size of the headstones, and those limitations in themselves react upon the form of the headstone. I wonder whether the Members of the House who have taken part in the Debate have studied the publication called the "Graves Report," which I directed to -be sent to every Member of the House some months ago. I think those who have done so will see the spirit in which the Imperial War Graves Commission approached their task: Stone crosses to succeed the temporary wooden crosses were at first suggested, but crosses of the small size necessitated by the nearness of the graves to each other do not allow sufficient space for the mens' names and the inscription, and are also by their shape too fragile and too subject to the action of frost and the weather for enduring use. Plain headstones measuring 2 ft. 6 in. by 1 ft. 3 in. were chosen, upon which a cross or other religious emblem of the dead man's faith could be carved and his regimental badge fully displayed. The Committee were not drawn to that conclusion until they had attempted to solve it from the point of view of a universal cruciform headstone. I should like to make it clear to the House that the difference in regard to the religious symbol is not a difference as to whether there should be a cross on the headstone or not, and is only a difference of whether the headstone itself is cut in a cruciform shape. The hon. Member for Ealing said that the cross would be permitted, but that does not do full justice to the position. The cross is invariable except in cases where it is clear that the religious faith or the personal wish of the soldier would render other things desirable. I will arrange to place in the Tea Room of the House specimens of these headstones, which will show the prominent manner in, which the cross is displayed, whether it is cut in or imposed upon it, but comparing the cruciform headstone the space on the plain headstone gives opportunity for nearly double the lettering to be inscribed.

I say that this matter can only be treated: administratively on certain broad general principles, and it does seem to rue that the first of all those principles is the principle of equality of treatment. We have heard from soldiers who are Members of the House, and saw the terrible scenes of this War, and know accurately the feelings of the fighting men, powerful arguments in favour of the principle of equality of treatment. It is not to be supposed that such a principle does not impose sacrifices on relatives of many of those who have, fallen. There are great numbers of: parents who would like to spend all the money that is possible on raising monuments to their dead. There are many who would like to build a special monument on the battlefield where the soldier actually fell, and preserve the ground for ever as a private burial place. There is really no limitation to the number of different ways in which the desire to show reverence and affection to the memory of the fallen, and to preserve that memory have manifested themselves. But the great mass of those who fell could not indulge in expensive monuments, and the thing that is deeply ingrained in soldierly breasts is that all should be treated alike, general and private, prince and peasant, all who lie there in common honour, and that the wealthy should forego in this matter that which their wealth would enable them to obtain. That is an admirable sentiment. I think nothing would be more grateful to many people than that their sons should lie exactly where they fell on the battlefield, but that is not possible. The French Government notified us that after a number of years they could not guarantee that the graves would not be disturbed by the ordinary life of the country, its agriculture and commerce, and it is for their protection that we have had to embark on this task of gathering them altogether and treating the problem as an administrative whole. Once you have admitted the principle of equality and imposed the sacrifice which that principle entails it does seem worth considering whether the advantages of the other course should not be reaped to the full—I mean the principle of uniformity.

I think it will be found that the limit in which variations are possible are very small, and the difficulties of introducing an alternative uniform headstone are very great. Lord Balfour of Burleigh brought a deputation to me at the War Office some time ago in which the whole case, which we have heard so eloquently and powerfully put this evening, was placed before me. I did not in any way contest the principle of an alternative cruciform headstone provided that the difficulties and disadvantages attending upon it could be successfully surmounted within the limits prescribed. Lord Balfour went away, and after full consultation with experts, and full consultation with General Fabian Ware, who represented the Imperial War Graves Commission, he proposed an alternative headstone which partially embodied the crucifom shape. It found no favour from the point of view of sightliness and there were other difficulties attendant on the manufacture of the headstone which were pointed out in the discussion that took place. As a result, Lord Balfour undertook to submit another alternative. I am telling this to the House to show how unjust is the suggestion that the War Graves Commission are simply trying to force an Imperial uniform scheme in this matter without making every effort to meet individual views upon it.


They may have been quite mistaken, but the impression was conveyed that the Commission intended to reject all alternative schemes on particular grounds, and, therefore, to enforce their will indirectly.


I do not think that imputation of motives is at all a just one. For myself, I say I certainly would not allow a small difference in the expense to stand in. the way of the adoption of an alternative headstone, provided that the other aspects of it were equally satisfactory. The present position is that Lord Balfour is going to try another alternative, and I will not prejudge my decision on that point, nor will the Commission, until we see it. I agree very largely with the view that if it be possible to have this alternative it should he provided. I agree most frilly with what has been said about the lettering, and anything that can be done to extend the lettering and the choice of inscription within the limits available shall certainly be done. I hope that the House will feel that this matter has been treated reverently and earnestly throughout by all who have been concerned in dealing with it. I cannot conceive that any body of Englishmen, British men, dealing with a subject of this kind, could be animated by any but the most solemn feelings. I did not agree entirely, and here I express a personal opinion, with the idea that a uniform cross should be provided in the first instance. I came to it also with the idea that a much greater latitude should be allowed. I was convinced in the course of presiding over these meetings of the very great difficulties which lay in the way, and I also, I am bound to say, have been led somewhat to, share the view which was so forcibly expressed by the hon. Member for Hexham (Captain Brown) earlier in the Debate. It is quite true that the wishes of the relatives should, as far as possible, be given full play within the limits allowed, but the collective aspect of these memorials ought not to be overlooked. They are unique memorials. There will be no cemeteries in the world like them. There will be no cemeteries in the world that will be preserved so long as they will be. The power of a great State operating over the centuries will keep these graveyards in a condition of repair, which will make them notable in the wide landscape of France long after the greater part of the memorials which will be raised over this generation who die in the ordinary course will probably have passed altogether from human knowledge. The collective aspect of these cemeteries as they have been planned by the Imperial War Graves Commission, in contrast with the ordinary cemeteries, with their varying memorials, would be most impressve and would, as it were, mark out those who have given their lives in this War in a special way from all those others, their contemporaries who met their ends in the ordinary manner. I cannot myself feel that that ought to be excluded. I cannot myself feel that the general and collective aspect of these war memorials should be ignored. They ought to present that feeling of national memorials to those who fell in this, extraordinary struggle, and I cannot believe that Members of the House who will give careful and patient study in the document which has been published by the Imperial War Graves Commission will feel that the Commission have fallen far short of the true solution of this most solemn and difficult matter.


The right hon. Gentleman has made an interesting speech, but nearly all of it had nothing to do with the point. It is only in the last part of it that he approached the subject which has been brought to the notice of the House by so many speakers to-day, and the nature of what purported to be a defence was really a confession that the accusation made against the Imperial War Graves Commission is a true one. He spoke of a war memorial. What conceivable right have the War Graves Commission, or my right hon. Friend, or anyone else to take the bodies of the dead to form part of a war memorial? The very phrase shows how abominable is the wrong done to the feelings of the survivors. This is not a war memorial at all; it is a cemetery of the dead. By all means let my right hon. Friend or the Imperial War Graves Commission put up any war memorial they like in France, and as many as they like, to express the national feelings of sorrow and honour to the dead, but they have no busi ness to use the individual body of the individual soldier for that purpose, because to do that Is to outrage the feelings of those who survive. The doctrine that the State or the Imperial War Graves Commission, or even the brother officers of the dead, have a right to be considered prior to those who really feel the sufferings of bereavement is a position which well deserves to be called partial. It is utterly without ethical defence. It is a position which disregards the tenderest feelings of humanity merely to pursue a bureaucratic ideal.

My right hon. Friend really misses the point, and when he called our attention to that book, let me say that I have looked at it and that, to my eyes, anything more absurd or grotesque than the cemeteries that are proposed to be erected cannot be conceived. My opinion is no better than anyone else's on that matter, but the point is that, if you are going to determine it as a question of taste, one person's opinion is as good as another's, arid the only people who have a right to judge are the relatives. No one complains that my right hon. Friend and the War Graves Commission, in so far as it is a question of dimensions, or expense, or transport, have laid down limitations, but the point is whether within the limits of what is possible you are going to commit the outrageous offence of using people's bereaved feelings as part of your apparatus for a war memorial, which is my right hon. Friend's own phrase, by way of making a monument which, although in my view it is in very bad taste, you think suitable; and that is the outrage he has no right to commit., and which justifip in essence all the language of indignation which we can command. My right hon. Friend misses the whole point, or, rather, as I say, he concedes it, w hen he has once said these are to be collective war memorials. You have no right to make them. You have to bury the dead in a manner as acceptable to the relatives as is consistent with the possibilities and as the consideration of dimensions, expense, and transport will allow. But to heap upon those who have already suffered enough for the good of the country this additional wrong, gratuitously, vexatiously, and of wilful purpose, that is the wrong that the War Graves Commission are committing to the bereaved, and that is why they richly deserve all the abuse that they have received or can receive in this Debate.

The thing is an outrage. It is to erect the pleasure of the State above the tenderest feelings of the individual. How foolishly inappropriate is this whole scheme of uniformity. What is the great characteristic of death? What is it that gives it its unique distinction? It is this: that it is the naked personality which stands alone at death as never before in life; all symbolism in a graveyard ought to express that characteristic, and to submerge it in a national uniformity, one stone exactly like the other, is to miss the whole beauty and pathos of death and to commemorate it in a way most inappropriate to its fundamental character. What is it that might be done? At any rate, my right hon. Friend concedes that there might be some larger variety. Look at an ordinary village churchyard. What is it that gives it its beauty and interest? Surely it is that every gravestone—many of them, it may be, in bad taste according to present standards—speaks of the personality, is typical of the individual, and that is what you want in a graveyard. Do not let us have these absurd photographs which I have seen. It is only the sadness and pathos of the thing which has prevented me from bursting into derisive laughter as I have looked at them, so utterly, so absurdly inappropriate are they. They are the very opposite of the right kind; these rows of gravestones, just like each other are altogether inappropriate. Everything should speak of the personality of the individual, and nothing that can be avoided of the uniformity of the organisation by which they are erected.


I wish the Noble Lord would address himself to the practical point and say exactly what his ideas are as to the variety which he thinks could be organised within the limits which he himself recognises.


Will the cross be allowed?


No satisfactory cruciform headstone has yet been devised which comes within the limits which are necessary.


The right hon. Gentleman must not misapprehend what I am endeavouring to argue. For my own personal opinion, I care nothing how people are buried. I am much more interested myself in the surviving personalities of the dead than in their dead bodies, but my feeling is that you ought to have regard to the bereaved, and what moves me to all the indignation I am expressing is not in the least my personal feelings, but that I cannot bear to hear the State representatives, with their silly formula of Parliamentary reply, trampling on the feelings of the bereaved who have sacrificed everything in the world to the State, and to whom from the State is due a debt which can never possibly he paid by this miserable desire to make pinchbeck war memorials; and that for the sake of that miserable exhibition of bad art and bad taste the feelings of the bereaved should be outraged moves me to a passionate indignation.


What is the Noble Lord's practical suggestion?


My practical suggestion is that. he should give up the idea of a War memorial and of a collective commemoration in these graveyards, and that he should say that the War Graves Corn-mission will address themselves to the subject afresh, basing their decisions on this, that they will allow such variety as is consistent with the rules laid down in respect to dimensions, transport, and expense. I quite recognise that the task is an exceedngly difficult one, that you cannot satisfy everybody, and that you must have these limitations. By all means let them lay down limitations, but let them at any rate give up the idea of a rigid uniformity, and let them try and give as much expression as the circumstances permit to the deeply lacerated individual feelings of those who alone should be considered—the bereaved parents, children, and widows of the dead.