Some Corner of a Foreign Field

English and German headstones

BBC Radio 4, 11.45 am, Sunday November 10.  Presenter Mark Whitaker, producer Mike Hally.

* Double-page feature in Radio Times, 9-15 November! *
Pick / choice in Saturday's Daily Mail, Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph *

"more richly informative and uncloyingly moving than many full-length documentaries" (FT Weekend)

A global network of cemeteries and memorials now marks every Commonwealth military casualty of the two World War – a commitment that was born amid the mud and slaughter of the Western Front.


The man responsible for this was Fabian Ware, and in this programme Mark Whitaker tells his extraordinary story. Ware, who arrived in France for the Red Cross and was shocked to find the graves of fallen soldiers going unrecorded. So his unit started registering all they could find and over the next two years sent 12,000 photographs to bereaved relatives.

As the War dragged on Ware lobbied for an official organisation to carry on the work, with equality of treatment in death regardless of rank, race or creed. The Imperial War Graves Commission was born on 21 May 1917, with three of the finest architects of the day - Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – engaged to design the cemeteries and memorials for every known casualty.

But there were fierce arguments over two key principles - non-repatriation of bodies and rejection of private memorials – so that officers and men would lie side by side, as they had served. The climax came in 1920 in one of the great Parliamentary debates, partly dramatised in this programme. Winston Churchill, as chairman of the Commission, made a majestic closing speech saying future generations would gaze in wonder upon their work, and the opposition was defeated.

Whitaker visits the Commission's headstone production centre, historic cemeteries in France, Belgium and the UK, and sees how horticulture remains at the heart of its work in creating the look of 'an English cottage garden' in no less than 153 countries around the World.

The picture shows British and German headstones side by side in the exceptionally beautiful bi-national cemetery of St Symphorien on the outskirts of Mons.  Behind the two headstones in the foreground is another which is that of a soldier who won the VC (c Mike Hally 2013)

Presented by Mark Whitaker and produced by Mike Hally

Bethune Cemetery
Bethune Cemetery where Fabian Ware was first given funds by the Red Cross to start marking graves properly with painted crosses, in September 1914

Stone engraving machine
An air-cooled engraving machine at work on a replacement headstone in the CWGC production facility at Arras in northern France, where 22,000 are made every year for sites all over the world

St Symphorien cemetery
Another view of St Symphorien cemetery

First casualty of FWW
In St Symphorien is believed to be the first British casualty of World War 1, Private J Parr