Equality for all

The fighting took no account of rank or class, and members of the social elite were among the dead. The sons of the Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and the Labour leader Arthur Henderson died on the same day during the Battle of the Somme, while the brother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – the future Queen Consort and Queen Mother – was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

The highest-status aristocrat to die was Prince Maurice of Battenberg, the youngest grandchild of Queen Victoria. The subsequent fallout over his place and manner of commemoration severely tested the Commission’s tenet of equality.

Prince Maurice Victor Donald of Battenberg by Bassano, 1911.  © National Portrait Gallery x79911. 

Killed at Zonnebeke in October 1914, Battenberg was buried in Ypres Town Cemetery among civilian graves and scattered war graves. His mother, Princess Beatrice, ordered an imposing granite cross for his headstone. This contravened the standard Commission design, but Beatrice felt that the Prince’s royal status should be recognised. Thus began a tense back-and-forth between Fabian Ware and the Princess’ representatives over how to proceed.

Original wooden cross used to mark the Prince’s grave, c. 1922.

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Prince Maurice’s original headstone, designed by his mother. CWGC Archive.

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Letter from Reggie Seymour, outlining the Princess’ anxiety at being denied a private memorial, 3 December 1918. © CWGC.

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“I had hoped that Princess Beatrice would have been ready to give a lead in this question of equality of treatment”

 Fabian Ware on Princess Beatrice, 1920

A frustrated Ware wanted Beatrice to be a powerful example of equality in action, but she held her ground. She was reportedly “exceedingly angry” at the idea of a separate location for the cross, instead requesting the moving or repatriation of Maurice’s body. By 1925 newspapers reported that Maurice would soon be receiving a Commission headstone, but Beatrice insisted that it be accompanied by her granite cross. Ware wrote again to change her mind, emphasising the “wonderful impression” that would be created if she democratised the headstone.

Letter from Fabian Ware to Sir Victor Corkran, Comptroller of the Princess’ household, 27 November 1925. © CWGC.

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‘All Treated Alike’, News of the World, 19 July 1925. © CWGC.

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The controversy rumbled on until 1932, when Beatrice agreed to Maurice being commemorated in the same way as his comrades. But notably this was only at the request of his regiment – not the Commission. His headstone bears the inscription: “GRANT HIM WITH ALL THY FAITHFUL SERVANTS A PLACE OF REFRESHMENT AND PEACE”.

Battenberg’s case showed that no one could escape the effects of war – a fact the Commission’s staff knew only too well. For many, their work was a means of confronting and overcoming the trauma of losing loved ones or fighting themselves. Read on to learn more about the personal anguish at the heart of the Commission in its early years.

Letter granting Princess Beatrice’s consent for the Commission headstone, 23 June 1932. © CWGC.

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