A Leeds Woman’s Story: The British War Graves Association

Words by Noel Reeve:

Most people are aware of the Imperial War Graves Commission, later to become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I wonder how many know of the British War Graves Association, founded in Leeds in 1919. The founder was Sarah Ann Smith, who lived at Tabor House in Stourton. Her son, Frederick Ernest died of wounds in 1918. He is buried at Grevellers near Arras.

She believed those soldiers killed in action who could be brought home for burial should be, as was the case with some other Allied troops. She fought for this cause for some years along with many people from Yorkshire and other parts of the country. In the Yorkshire Evening News of 17 February 1919 there was a report of a statement by Rudyard Kipling. It said, in part:

In view of the enormous numbers (over half a million) of our dead in France alone, the removal of the bodies to England would be impossible, even if there was a desire for it. But the overwhelming majority of relatives are content that their kin should lie – officers and men together – in the countries that they have redeemed. Judging from what many gallant fighters have said and written before they in turn fell this, in all but a few special cases, is the desire of the dead themselves.

In response, and after it was reported that Edith Cavell’s body was to be brought home for burial, an anonymous letter (signed ‘Mother’) in the Yorkshire Evening News on 9 May 1919:

Soldiers and their Graves
Now the government has decided to remove the bodies of the fallen from the scattered cemeteries to large central cemeteries, why cannot they allow relatives who so desire to have them brought home to be placed in the family grave.
Nurse Cavell’s body is being brought over to England, and why not others?
I think the feeling is very strong against this attitude of the government, who claimed our boys when living, and now they have sacrificed their lives we are to be robbed of their dear remains, which belong to us and are ours alone.

This letter illustrates the strength of feeling in many mothers and wives who were bereaved. It may or may not have been written by Mrs Smith but she is the likely author as it is written in her style. It elicited several responses from readers, and a letter of 20 May 1919, this time signed by Mrs Smith, launched a petition, which led to the formation of the British War Graves Association:

Graves of Fallen Soldiers
In view of the decision of the Government to remove the remains of the fallen from the scattered cemeteries in France and Belgium to new cemeteries, a petition is being got up to the Prince of Wales, as President of The War Graves Commission, to allow those relations who so wish, to have the bodies brought over to this country. Anyone having suffered loss are invited to give their names to the petition.

We now jump forward three years. The following item was published in the Rothwell Courier & Times on 13 May 1922:

Meeting in Leeds
A membership of more than three thousand is now claimed by the British War Graves Association, which owes its inception to the promotion of a petition by Mrs S A Smith of Tabor House, Stourton, asking the government to permit and facilitate the re-burial at home of the men who fell during the war and are buried in foreign cemeteries. The petition, which was put forward in 1919, was unsuccessful, but a large proportion of the two thousand five hundred signatories formed the nucleus of the association, which has now its central branch in Leeds, and branches in Sheffield and Wakefield. Alderman Arthur Willey is president, Lady Florence Cecil and Lady Margaret Horlick are vice-presidents, Rev G Farrington is chairman, and Mrs Smith is honorary secretary.
At a meeting of the central branch on Saturday at the YMCA Leeds, a letter was read from the president […]. He was whole-heartedly in sympathy with the objects of the association, and as one who had lost a son in the war, all such objects affected him deeply. The primary object of their association had not been attained, namely the question of burial at home. He never could understand what possible objection there could be to this. It was the least the government could have done to show their gratitude to those whose relations had given their lives for their country. In a matter of this kind the question of expense did not worry him. The National purse could well afford it, and although there would have been difficulty in his opinion there would be no difficulty too great that could not be overcome. It was decided again to ask Mr Clynes to reopen the question in the House of Commons.

Prior to this meeting, there had been a debate carried out in the pages of the local press about the desirability and feasibility of the Association’s aims to bring home the war dead. A selection reveals the diversity of opinions:

Our Dead in France
I was keenly interested in reading the letter in your issue of 22nd inst re above.
I would think it would send a thrill through many, who have dear ones sleeping their last long sleep in a foreign land, to find they are snubbed when they seek the aid of government help to sooth their grief.
I for one, have come to the conclusion that it is an ungrateful country. Would to God that our sons, husbands and brothers could rise from their graves what is taking place! Nothing stood in their way to serve their country when duty called; but now when they have paid the full sacrifice, they must be relegated into oblivion as soon as possible.
I trust the call made by Mrs Smith will not be met with the usual apathy, but that others will take the matter up with promptness of all the forces they can muster.
I think all sailors and soldiers societies should put in their strength.
23rd October 1919

More letters followed in later editions of the newspaper:

Our Dead in France
Referring to S A Smith’s letter in your issue of 22nd October I think it is as little as government can do to allow those who are willing to bear the expense of removing the bodies of their loved ones to this country so that their graves could be properly attended to. The government say they are too poor to grant relatives a free pass to France, but they are not too poor to spend millions on ammunition etc for Russia. I am afraid these poor boys will soon be forgotten by an ungrateful country – a poor recompense for lads who gave their all.
If those who have lost sons in France would take this matter up surely something might be done.
One who has lost a son
Pudsey 26th October 1919

I lost my all, and am keenly interested in the letters advocating that the bodies of our dear ones should be brought over to the country they died to save. This would be of great comfort to thousands of poor mothers and wives.
I think like “Armley” thinks that the government snubs us when we ask questions on the matter but they did not snub us when we gave our all, and when the lads left home and all they loved to defend their beloved country. That was quite different.
They should now try to comfort the bereaved, and the country should put all its strength towards achieving the object of recovering the bodies to be laid in British graves.
One of the Sufferers
Ackworth 26th October 1919

Our Dead in France
I agree with your correspondents with regard to “Our Dead in France”. I think the least that might be done for the sorrowing relatives would be to give them a free pass to visit the graves of their dear ones. It would at least show recognition of the great sacrifice these lads made for the country they loved.
“Greater Love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends”. Should not this great sacrifice of our lads be appreciated.
One who has lost
Keighley 20 October 1919

I fully endorse the sentiments by Mrs Smith and others regarding our dear dead in France. Why should the government deny their remains to those who desire them and it is possible to bring them home.
I saw in a leading paper where it was suggested to bring one unknown soldier to be buried at St Paul’s to represent all the dead. That would comfort no one. Where possible give us our own.
It would help to sooth many a bleeding heart. Our boys died to save our country, and we must see they are not forgotten.
29th October 1919

Would it be wise to bring these bodies here? Think what it would mean to take up bodies who have died in full flesh and have lain for a long time. It would cause our hearts to bleed afresh, and perhaps bring sickness and death in its train. Our boys themselves would not wish it, but would rather we let their bodies lie where they are.
I have lost a son out in Egypt. I wish his grave were in France where it would be possible sometime to go and not so far away in the desert. If I thought it was him that was there I could not be comforted, but it is only his shell and it makes no difference where it lies. Our Father keeps the reunion before my eyes.
Another son of mine has returned safe, and he tells me how reverently our boys have been laid to rest. French ladies, he says, take flowers and place them on the boys graves which will be well looked after. Mothers! Take comfort; your sons WILL NOT soon be forgotten, but they will be remembered while the world lasts. Let us remember them as they left us, their bright sunny, sunny, laughing faces, for they themselves would wish it so.
C Graves
Brighouse 29th October 1919

Mrs Smith was swift to respond to letters like the example above who disagreed with her viewpoint, writing another letter that was published on 31 October 1919:

There are some peculiar people like C Graves who say; “What matters where our dear ones are laid, if they are just stretched out in a sack or blanket? It makes no difference, for it is only the old cast off garment lying there”.
But to the more humane??? This sentiment does not apply. They say “This garment clothed our loved ones, who we have watched and cared for from childhood. Now we cry out to have this beloved body restored to us. It is our very own and we would wish to have it buried with due reverence and tend its grave with our own hands”.
C Graves has the audacity to state that our boys “Do not wish for removal”. Has she had an intimation from them to that effect? Some of the cemeteries may be in good condition,, but I have information to prove this is not so, but just the reverse, in many of the cemeteries and our boys are already forgotten.
All mothers have not got to that high state of faith to which C Graves has evidently attained, and they long to know the last resting place of their dear ones.
I should be glad to hear from anyone who is willing to support us in this campaign of a just cause.
S A Smith

Mrs Graves then responds on 3 November 1919:

I intended my letter for the comfort of bereaved mothers. My third son spent about four years in France and played the “Last Post” over 2000 of our boys. He tells me how reverently they were laid to rest. He and a few friends spent all their spare time carving crosses and taking photographs of graves for the comfort of those at home.
After one leave my son took back a wreath for a sorrowing wife to place on her husbands grave. I have every assurance that whenever a soldier is laid there is reverence and respect shown.
I have more to be thankful for than many mothers. My second son died in hospital, with every attention. I have had respectful answers to all my enquiries, and a photo of his grave showing a headstone beautifully decorated.
But poor comfort is found in a grave and I long for all bereaved mothers to find the “Great Comforter” that I have found, and who gives peace and comfort which satisfies us more than anything else can.
Clara Graves
Hill Crest, Woodhouse, Brighouse.

This again elicits another response from Mrs Smith:

In reply to C Graves, Old Soldier and Cemetery Caretaker, I again repeat I have reliable information that many of the graves are in a state of neglect. As to the “nice way” in which are boys are buried, if the placing of a body in a blanket and putting it under a few feet of earth, where in time it will be exposed, is what constitutes a decent burial, I fail to see it. The sounding of the Last Post is the only act of reverence about it.
I would remind C Graves that many of us attend a place of worship and we believe in the Apostles Creed, but still we believe it to be our bounden duty to see that our loved ones are decently buried if possible. I maintain that our dead belong to us the government cannot stop us from having them removed if we wish.
We do not begrudge the honour done to Nurse Cavell, Capt. Fryatt and many others; also the proposed honour of bringing over an unknown soldier to be buried in St Pauls. But our boys were heroes just the same, and we have a right to have them restored to us. I again invite all in sympathy to communicate with me.
S A Smith
Tabor House, Stourton. 4th November 1919

Other readers disagreed however, such as the following letter, published by a Leeds ex-soldier:

I have read with interest the series of letters published in your columns of late with regard to the subject of “Our Dead in France” and I have come to the conclusion that most of your correspondents are not in the least conversant with the difficulties of the situation.

I speak from personal knowledge when I say that thousands of our gallant dead were buries in close proximity to the firing line both on the Somme and around Ypres. Every one who knows what shell-fire is and anyone who has experienced the uncomfortable whizz of rifle and machine gun bullets knows full well how difficult it is to bury the dead. In fairness to the living soldiers it was impossible to hold imposing funeral services. There was absolutely no question of callousness How can any decent minded civilian think of such a thing.
In the cases of our dead at Ypres and in the Somme at any rate, there can be very little question of the bodies being exhumed and brought back to this country. As regards the big cemeteries well behind the lines they were and are being kept in a good state of presentation.
Ex Soldier
Leeds 6th November 1919

Mrs Smith writes another letter in response to this, and then informs readers that the American government have allowed for the exhumation of bodies of US soldiers:

My opponents have a fine habit of evading the real points and contempting themselves by attacking my veracity. In my first letter of October 21st I stated that in many cases removal would be impossible and that many will agree with the Commission and do not wish for removal, but again I ask why those who differ be coerced.
I got up a petition to HRH The Prince of Wales some time ago for removal where possible and where desired. It was signed by 2273 persons in Leeds District only and the work completed in a fortnights time, but no satisfaction has been obtained up to the present. So I think the time has come for all interested to form a band of sympathy and start a campaign ourselves.
I will give an instance in proof of my statement re neglect. A lady went to visit four cemeteries in different parts of the line and she found the graves miserably neglected in three of the cemeteries. They were overgrown with docks, nettles and thistles and in many cases the metal plates with names were hanging loose on mean little crosses, ready for the first wind to drag out the one remaining nail.
Now in one instance in the beautiful new cemeteries. One of them is on a slope and in one case (probably more) the graves had to be dug horizontally, and after the body had been placed down the hole it was found that the feet were protruding, so the work had to be gone over again.
This is not pleasant to dwell upon but it makes one wish to have our loved ones brought home buried decently in a coffin and according to our liking.
S A Smith
Tabor House, Stourton 7th November 1919

Now the Americans are negotiating with the French Government for exhumation of their 65,000 dead lying in France, it is time we who wish our dead to be returned to us to assert our claims.
All interested are asked to attend a meeting at the address below on Saturday December 6th at 6 o’clock pm.
Mrs Smith
Tabor House, Stourton. 28th November 1919

This is a point Mrs Smith makes again in one of the Association’s meetings, which was held in Pudsey and reported in the local press:

British War Graves Association
A meeting was held in the Unitarian School, Pudsey, on the 13th inst. The Rev. R Newell was in the chair.
Mrs Smith said if we had 50,000 members in the Association we would go forward. Our first object was to claim the bodies of the fallen. If you were Italian, American, French or German you had the right of removal, but because we were British our fallen relatives must remain on foreign soil. Some of the relatives would like to go visit the graves of their dear ones, by being in the Association we could all help each other. The Association also made every enquiry through its foreign correspondence for missing soldiers.
Monthly meetings are held at the YMCA, Leeds every first Saturday.

The membership of the Association was growing, and there was support from an influential source as reported in the Rothwell Courier of 20 November 1920:

British War Graves Association
A Leeds Resolution
At a largely attended meeting of the Central Branch of the British War Graves Association , held in Victoria Square, Leeds on the night of Armistice Day, the following resolution was unanimously adopted:- “That British relatives who desire, and where it is possible, should have the same privilege as America, France, and other countries, viz., that of bringing home the bodies of their dear ones to be buried in home cemeteries.”
Mrs S A Smith of Tabor House, Stourton gratefully acknowledged the resolution.
In this connection the following article on “Soldiers Graves” by the Countess of Selborne will be timely and appropriate:
“At this moment, when with much pomp and ceremony we are transferring the remains of an unknown soldier to a London grave from the battlefields of France, I would beg my countrymen and country women to take pity on those who earnestly desire that the bodies of those they have lost in battle should be buried near their own homes. That there is no reason against granting permission to those who desire to remove their relations remains is shown by the fact that the French Government has done so, and the American Government has gone further still and borne the expense of such removal.
I know that many people feel that it is finer to leave the bodies in war cemeteries, all cannot think alike on matters of sentiment, and women are bitterly hurt at the prohibition to bury their sons or husbands where they can visit and care for their graves themselves. Why inflict this unnecessary pain on those who have already suffered so much? It is true that every mourner is not in a position to afford to bring home a body, but a great many are, as it does not cost much, and, indeed, to people of narrow means the expense of bringing the body home would be less than the expense involved in frequent visits to the grave in France.”

On 18 June 1921 the Rothwell Courier published another letter on the topic on its front page, sent by the Countess of Selborne to Mrs Smith:

There is one aspect of compulsory burying all the gallant men who fell in defence of France in that country, to which I think sufficient attention has not been given.
A very large sum has been spent in beautifying these cemeteries, and certainly no one would wish to stint money in honouring our glorious dead, but how little security we have that the monuments erected at so much expense will be maintained, and how few of their fellow countrymen will see them.
Many things may happen which would cause their destruction. In future times there may be wars there in which we will not take part the great stones may serve either side for gun emplacements. There may be riots.
For some reason or other England may be unpopular in France at that moment, and the cemeteries might be wrecked by the mob.
How much better it would have been have had the State cemeteries – if State cemeteries are desired – on the British coast where they could have always been admired and cherished by our own people, and those who wished to have their own dead buried near their homes, might have been gratified at little extra expense.
Yours truly Maud Selborne

The endeavours of the British War Graves Association to bring home the dead came to nought. They did however organise and assist many people to visit the graves of the fallen at Whitsuntide every year. Mrs Smith missed only one year until her death in 1936.

A letter of condolence from the Imperial War Graves Commission, sent upon the instructions of Sir Fabian Ware, was received. In the late 1930s the visits to the cemeteries were coming to an end as war loomed again in Europe.

It is ironic that should the fallen have been brought home, Mrs Smith’s son would have been buried in the family grave at St Mark’s, Woodhouse, where Mrs Smith and several members of her family are interred. St Marks closed some years ago and has been neglected by church and corporation since. Headstones in the cemetery have been destroyed by vandals. This situation, I imagine, has been replicated at numerous cemeteries around Britain. The War Graves in France and Belgium have been properly maintained whilst those here have not.

Mrs Smith was also a member of St. Andrew’s Church Stourton War Memorial Committee. Her son by her first marriage, William Dalton, also served on the committee as did her daughter Dorothy Smith, my mother. The Rothwell Courier of 13 August 1921 reported the unveiling of the memorial which had 75 names of local men, by Viscount Lascelles. Frederick Ernest Smith, Mrs Smith’s son, enlisted in the Yorkshire Hussars on 2nd March 1917, regimental number 4033. My father also enlisted in the Yorkshire Hussars and was number 4031. They both ended up in the York & Lancaster Regiment. Did they meet whilst enlisting? As my father married Frederick’s sister, was that how my father met my mother?

The information for this article came from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Yorkshire Archives at Leeds, the Leeds Central Library and the British Newspaper Library at Colindale.