When War Is Over by Daniel Alexander and Andrew Haslam combines contemporary photographs and archival material to document the history and ongoing work of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Established in May 1917 (originally as the Imperial War Graves Commission) it is responsible for maintaining memorials for 1.7 million Commonwealth War dead at sites in 23,000 locations across 153 countries. When considering the magnitude of the First and Second World Wars, the question arises: How to possibly convey the incomprehensible scale of such loss while simultaneously presenting narratives of individual humanity?
While the distinctive uniform headstone design and typography of commonwealth graves are immediately recognisable to many, this book tells the lesser known history of the Commission’s origins. Under the vision and leadership of founder Fabian Ware, a former school teacher and newspaper editor, and Frederic Kenyon, then director of the British Museum, the Commission’s ideology was founded on equality. In his report ‘War Graves, How the Cemeteries Abroad will be Designed” (1918), Kenyon argued: “…what was done for one should be done for all, and that all, whatever their military rank or position in civil life, should have equal treatment in their graves.”
The tension between commemorating the individual through the uniform treatment of many was the subject of a heated debate in the House of Commons on 4 May 1920 when the Commission’s founding principles were challenged, and it is a theme that is at the heart of Alexander and Haslam’s publication. When War Is Over evocatively succeeds in exploring this dilemma through its exceptionally well considered pacing and layout. Contemporary landscapes of anonymous monolithic quarries are followed by simple details such as a duck egg blue umbrella sheltering a solitary gardener or stonemason at work. Elsewhere a diptych showing a small private interment ceremony is shortly followed by a double gate fold depicting 122 ledgers listing the names of war dead, reminding us of the scale of the Commission’s operations.
Half way through the book, an unexpected booklet interrupts a sequence of images depicting numerous typed and engraved names. Printed on thin delicate paper, a few carefully chosen documents recount the story of a soldier, Jimmy (James Hair Brown). Beginning with his youthful studio portrait, reproduced letters soon reveal Jimmy’s death on the 22nd March 1918 while attempting to rescue a wounded comrade, and the Imperial War Commission’s subsequent systematic search for his grave during March 1920. The sensitive design of this booklet with its change in scale, content and paper type suggests an ephemerality which forces the viewer to slow down and engage with Jimmy’s story and the Commission’s work on a deeply personal level.
When War Is Over ends with a series of satellite photographs of cemeteries in countries including France, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Each image is accompanied by a brief caption listing the thousands commemorated at each site. Devoid of sentimentality, these images not only show the long-term impact of war on the landscape, but also uncomfortably recall aerial surveillance photographs from wars past and present. The book consequently closes with the viewer questioning ideas surrounding conflict, permanence, and memory.
Ultimately this book represents a living history: a testament not only to the war dead, but also to Ware and Kenyon’s original vision, and those countless overlooked individuals who ensure these memorials survive in their continuing cycle of repair and regeneration.
– reviewed by Helen Trompeteler for Photomonitor