Rallying the opposition

Women’s forms of protest moved beyond the private sphere and spanned all classes.

Headstone with lion and rose and crown badge above inscription, cross below, further inscription below cross

The grave of Frederick Smith, Grevillers British Cemetery. © CWGC.

Sarah Smith

One of the most prominent campaigners was a Leeds housewife named Sarah Smith. Smith’s 19 year-old son had died of wounds in 1918 and was buried at Grevillers British Cemetery, France.

Sarah Smith, c.1930s.  CWGC Archive.

Sarah Smith’s petition for the repatriation of British bodies, May 1919

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A British War Graves Association application form

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Despairing at the decision not to repatriate the dead, Smith organised a petition lobbying the Prince of Wales – the President of the Commission – to reverse the policy. Speaking on behalf of “brokenhearted subjects”, she claimed “the right which has ever been the privilege of the bereaved” to personally honour their loved ones. Over 2,500 people signed the petition.

Although the petition failed, it led to the creation of the British War Graves Association, a group that opposed the approach of the Commission. Based in Leeds, by 1922 it had over 3,000 members.

A selection of desperate letters from Sarah Smith on behalf of the British War Graves Association. © CWGC

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As the Association’s Secretary, Smith wrote to the Commission over many years outlining new demands. These included returning bodies from Germany, ensuring ‘concentrated’ bodies were reburied in coffins, improving the legibility of engraved headstones and providing Government funding to visit graves abroad.

All the requests were politely rejected, leading an increasingly dejected Smith to feel the burden of her responsibility. She wrote, “I find the work of the Association almost too much but nobody will take my place and I feel I must carry on”.


“Many thousands of mothers and wives are slowly dying for the want of the grave of their loved ones”

Sarah Smith, writing to Queen Mary, 1920

The British War Graves Association eventually shifted its focus to helping relatives visit battlefields abroad. But such was the Commission’s sympathy and respect for Smith’s relentless efforts that when she died in 1936 it paid tribute to her “most valuable services” on behalf of the bereaved.

Lady Florence Mary Cecil
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Lady Florence Cecil’s petition to the Prince of Wales appealing for cruciform headstones, 1919. © CWGC.

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Lady Florence Cecil

Sara Smith enlisted the help of prominent aristocratic women to further the Association’s cause, including Lady Florence Cecil, wife of the Bishop of Exeter. The couple lost three sons  in the war, so Cecil had a personal investment in the work of the Association when she became its Vice-President.

Cecil went on to launch her own petition in 1919, appealing to the Prince of Wales to allow permanent headstones in the shape of a cross. It garnered 8,000 signatures, and alongside many are poignant details of the dead. Mrs. Nicholson simply states, “An only son”. Mrs. W. de Courcy Stretton records

“Four dear sons (out of five) have given their lives for their King and Country”

Beatrix Maud, Countess of Selborne

by Lafayette. © National Portrait Gallery Ax41196.

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Text of the article ‘National Socialism in War Cemeteries’ by Countess Selborne, National Review, July 1920. © CWGC.

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The Countess of Selborne

Another well-heeled ally of Smith’s was the political and women’s rights activist Beatrix Maud Palmer, Countess of Selborne; she was born a Cecil and was the sister-in-law of Lady Florence. Selborne wrote to senior politicians in support of the British War Graves Association. She declared herself a “heretic on the subject of our soldiers’ graves” and repeatedly appealed “to let these poor women bring home the bodies of their dead sons”.

In 1920 Selborne published a scathing article in the National Review. It decried the Commission’s policy of equality as a form of “National Socialism”, from the uniform cemetery designs to the veto on repatriation.

“This conscription of bodies is worthy of Lenin.”

Countess Selborne, National Review, 1920.