Photograph of a grave card issued by the Director of Graves Registration and Enquiries

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Photograph of the "Grave of..." card issued by the Director of Graves Registration and Enquiries, 1914-1918.

This is a centrefold card issued by the Director of Graves Registration and Enquiries. It has a monochromatic image of the Eastern Boulogne Cemetery on one side of the fold and a proforma on the other with the text “Photograph of the Grave of ...”- together with headings for the name of the deceased, rank and initials, regiment, position of grave, and nearest railway station.

In September 1914, Fabian Ware, commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross, became aware of the absence of any official mechanism for documenting or marking the location of graves of those who had been killed. Thousands of soldiers were being buried by their comrades on battlefields in individual or communal graves. Often they were buried where they fell, or in a burial ground on or near the battlefield. A simple cross or marker might be put up to mark the location and give brief details of the individuals who had died. In the early stage of the war, the British Army had no official register to whom these battlefield burials could be formally reported with a name and the location of the grave. Often, with the ebb and flow of battle over time, grave markers were lost entirely. Ware felt compelled to create an organisation within the Red Cross to record battlefield burials. In March 1915, Ware's work was given official recognition and support by the Imperial War Office and the unit were transferred to the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.

As the work of the Commission became public, friends and relatives of deceased soldiers began making enquiries and requests for photographs of graves. In March 1915, the Commission, with the support of the Red Cross, began to dispatch photographic prints and cemetery location information in answer to these requests. In recognition of this expansion of its role, in spring 1916 the Commission's name was changed to the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries. By 1917, 17,000 photographs had been dispatched to relatives of the dead. In May 1917, the British government established the Imperial War Graves Commission to take over the work of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries in the post-war period. At the conclusion of World War One, 979,000 dead British and Empire soldiers were left in France and the Imperial War Graves Commission decided that these men would be laid to rest in war cemeteries in France rather than be disinterred and repatriated to the United Kingdom for reburial. As such, there remained constant demand from relatives of war dead for information about their burial sites.

Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, depicted in this image, is one of the Boulogne-sur-Mer town cemeteries. It lies in the district of St Martin Boulogne, just beyond the eastern (Chateau) edge of the Citadel (Haute-Ville). The Commonwealth War Graves plot is located down the western edge of the southern section of the cemetery. In the photograph grave markers were placed upright, but over time headstones were laid flat due to the cemetery's sandy soil.

I was drawn to this particular image of the cemetery as it depicts an early effort to mark the burial place of fallen soldiers. The headstones are of varied design, and have not yet been homogenised by the restrictions placed upon war cemeteries by the Imperial War Graves Commission. It is also a reminder that the decision not to repatriate the fallen was, at the time, somewhat controversial. Many relatives were upset because they could not afford to visit cemeteries in France or Belgium, and they disliked the generic grave markers that were required by the Imperial War Graves Commission. This issue highlights the tensions of public and private remembrance of the war dead.

Audio recording by Brian Ireland (Volunteer), Cardiff.
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