Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Empires of the Dead and Sounding Thunder

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Two books – unrelated except for their WW1 connection – offer insights into the mindset of an imperialist or dominant culture.

Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves

In Empires of the Dead, David Crane chronicles the life of Fabian Ware, first head of the Imperial War Graves Commission, and Ware’s role in creating over 2000 cemeteries and monuments to commemorate those who died in WW1.

Born in Bristol to a prosperous Plymouth Brethren family, Ware turned away from his religion but remained an idealist. At Oxford, he was taken by Alfred Milner’s ‘New Imperialism’. He proved himself to be a skilled administrator and diplomat early in his career.

As a commander in the Mobile Ambulance Unit in WW1, he saw firsthand the cavalier treatment of the dead. He was appalled. He started to record the graves systematically. This lead to the formation of the Graves Registration Commission. Ware negotiated the expropriation of land to bury the dead from the British Empire, first at the local level, then with the French government. A properly constituted authority of Britain and the Dominions would control the future maintenance of the graves.

The garden cemeteries on the Western Front with row on row of gravestones standing at attention were not the inevitable outcome. The concept of equality of commemoration, close to where the dead had fallen, was a controversial idea at the time. Those who could afford it wished to repatriate the remains of their loved ones for burial at home. Wherever the bodies were, they wanted to erect personalized monuments. Competing government bureaucracies vied for control of the operations. Some favoured burials by regiment, well ordered by rank. The Anglican Church pushed for a Christian aesthetic, with crosses on all the graves. Initially, the graves of those shot at dawn for cowardice were isolated from the others.

The colossal monuments to the missing were another subject of manoeuvering and negotiation. Some called for individual graves, whether or not there were remains. While the architects vied for their own visions, the overall effect is of mourning the loss, not of glorifying military triumph. “No one in the history of warfare has transformed the horrors and suffering of a battlefield into oases of peace like Ware.” (p 60)

Ultimately, a uniform headstone was based on classical lines, with a regimental badge, a religious symbol distinguishing Christian, Hindu, Jew or Muslim, as well as accommodation for language of the deceased. Next of kin could add a short personal epitaph.

Leverage in negotiating all these elements was gained in part because of the participation of the other countries. Indeed, the Imperial War Graves Commission foreshadowed the Commonwealth as a model of multinational cooperation, “the only permanent institutional reflection [pre-1965] of a common spirit in the Empire, of an equal partnership of nations.” (p 98) “Like many another good communitarian, … Ware’s idea of co-operation was the rest of the community doing what he wanted it to do, but that did not make his vision any less compelling.” (p 78)

An interesting, well-documented account, but not without its flaws. Crane’s propensity to write in run-on sentences peppered with commas can break the flow in reading. (Where was the editor?) He also assumes a deep knowledge of British history and culture to appreciate underlying details of the story and nuances of his analysis. But is that knowledge widely ingrained beyond the privileged or learned classes of Britain? That may well be the target audience, but does it belie Ware’s ideals of community?

Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Francis Pegahmagabow

Francis Pegahmagabow, a member of the Ojibwe nation, is the most decorated Canadian Indigenous soldier for bravery and the most accomplished sniper in North American military history. Today, few know his name. For those who do, his WW1 record may be all they know of him. To the Nishnaabe, he is a legend.

Brian D McInnes fills out Pegahmagabow’s life in Sounding Thunder. He brings more than his academic credentials to the task … he is a great-grandson of Pegahmagabow.

This is not an ordinary book. Each chapter is highlighted by the reminiscences of Duncan and Marie (youngest son and daughter of Francis), Duncan’s stories presented in the original Ojibwe and in English translation. McInnes juxtaposes these family stories and other historical records with cultural and spiritual background to enrich our understanding of Pegahmagabow.

Through the storytelling, we see how his connections to the land and spiritual practices informed his life, readied him to be a sniper, and sustained him during the war. Other soldiers respected his skills. Officers sought the power of his tobacco to change the direction of the wind.

Pegahmagabow’s war record did not translate into respect after the war. Status Indians (as First Nations members on reserve were legally known at the time) still faced discrimination from the dominant government, living under the paternalistic supervision of Indian agents. Pegahmagabow was not eligible for regular veteran benefits, could not vote, could not sign for a business loan. He fought to preserve language and culture, in local band government and as a proponent of national Indigenous political organization.   

With Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow, the stories have taken flight beyond the book. Composer Tim Corlis and librettist Armand Garnet Ruffo transformed it into a multidisciplinary musical journey with chamber music, dance, drumming, film and spoken word. I saw the moving production last month at Ottawa Chamberfest. Let’s hope the short run will be resurrected soon.

Francis Pegahmagabow also inspired Joseph Bryden’s Three Day Road.

Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

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