The commission defends itself

In the wake of individual and collective opposition across nations and classes, the Commission was on the defensive.

Kenyon speaks out

Letter from Sir Frederic Kenyon to Lord Hugh Cecil defending the Commission, 3 February 1920. Reproduced with permission of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House.

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One dramatic riposte came from Sir Frederic Kenyon, who engaged in a quarrel-by-correspondence with Lord Hugh Cecil – the brother-in-law of Lady Florence Cecil. Lord Hugh publicly denounced the new war cemeteries as “anti-Christian”, prompting an angry letter from Kenyon in which he cites the Cross of Sacrifice as proof to the contrary.

Reminding Lord Hugh that “I have relations and many friends lying in these cemeteries”, Kenyon almost sardonically remarks: “I would not say that I am as good a Christian as you, but I would ask you to believe that I am as sincere a one as you”. He also argues for the importance of the Stone of Remembrance as a “universal” symbol for each visitor “to attach to it a meaning or no meaning, as he may choose”.

Portrait of upper body of man with moustache wearing a suit, crossed arms, black and white photograph

William Burdett-Coutts MP by Elliot & Fry, 1870. © National Portrait Gallery x197066.

Showdown in Parliament

Following vocal opposition from some MPs and other prominent figures, a debate was held in Parliament on the “resentment aroused amongst relatives of fallen soldiers” by the Commission’s philosophy and methods.

Copy of William Burdett-Coutts’ speech to Parliament, 4 May 1920 © CWGC.

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With some coaching from Rudyard Kipling, the MP William Burdett-Coutts eloquently presented the case for our work. Assuring the House that the Commission was guided by “infinite consideration and sympathy”, he emphasised the breadth of military, religious and diplomatic figures who had been consulted in developing the cemeteries. He declared that “Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that the Commission is animated by the spirit of officialdom and bureaucracy”; rather, it strove to represent “the union of all, in motive, in action and in death”.

Winston Churchill, the then-Secretary of State for War and thereby the Chair of the Commission, closed the debate with words of resounding approval. His support had not been guaranteed, and therefore came as a relief to Burdett-Coutts and Fabian Ware. After the debate it was generally agreed that the Commission would be able to continue its work unimpeded.

Portrait of head and shoulders of balding man wearing a suit and bowtie

Winston Churchill by Vandyk, 1923.  © National Portrait Gallery x129684.

“…there is no reason at all why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this Great War shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial to the efforts and the glory of the British Army, and the sacrifices made in the great cause”.

Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, 1920

The continual objections to the Commission’s work – particularly Sarah Smith and the British War Graves Association – can be seen as an attempt to gain some compensatory control over events that were out of people’s hands. We might perceive this as ‘bargaining’ over death – a complex aspect of grief that the Commission faced in its dealings with individual families and entire nations, as we will see in the next section.