Orde Wingate & Sir John Dill, Arlington Cemetery, USA

Ownership of the remains of dead British servicepeople was always problematical when other countries were involved; it was particularly so when there were intermingled British and American remains due to the opposed basic principles of the two national programmes. The British did not permit repatriation whilst the Americans had it as one of their prime objectives.

maj-gen orde wingate

Major General Orde Wingate

If it was impossible to identify individual remains, the agreement in Western Europe was that the bodies would be moved to the nearest British or American cemetery, reinterred as ‘Found’ and a collective memorial erected. Colonel Stott, who was central to this agreement with the Americans, minuted that he trusted there would be very few cases where it would be necessary to convey the bodies back to an American Central Identification Point ‘since movement over frontiers should be kept to a minimum’.[1]

In other theatres of war, however, this type of agreement did not necessarily operate, and then the nationality of the greater number might prevail, possibly entailing repatriation to the United States. The most controversial example of this was the case involving the famous Major General Orde Wingate of the Chindits. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery in Washington because the Americans outnumbered the British in the aircraft in which he lost his life, no individual identification having been possible.[2]

British newspapers often picked up on cases where relatives of the dead had been badly treated. The particularly high-profile case of Orde Wingate caused the always combustible Daily Mirror to explode. On 28 November 1950, the paper printed what, for it, amounted to a sizeable article.

One of the most curious — and apparently most callous  — postscripts of the war has just come to light. It concerns four men and should any explanation be needed for the retracing of the steps of this incident in a newspaper, let it be said at once that two of the people belonged to Fleet Street.

When Wingate’s plane crashed in March 1944 on the borderland between Assam and Burma, there were no survivors. The crew of five were American. The four passengers were British, and included Stuart Emeny of the News Chronicle and Stanley Wills of the Daily Herald. The intermingled remains were buried in a common grave, and later reburied at Imphal, which was taken to be the final resting place by the British relatives.

On 10 November 1950, completely out of the blue, the Wingate family received a telegram from the War Office telling them that Wingate’s remains were to be reburied a third time — in Arlington — the ceremony being timed for 2 p.m. that same day. The arrangements for the third burial had been going on for over a year, but none of the British relatives knew anything about it until it was too late. The ceremony was entirely American — ‘there was no British flag, nor was our National-Anthem sung.’ The Daily Mirror concluded:

Surely in the records of official callousness or on the botched scrolls of abysmal inefficiency there are few blunders to surpass this performance with its appalling affront to the families of the dead men.

‘Cassandra’, The Daily Mirror, 28 November 1950.

A closely related example of the problems occurring due to the different British and American approaches is the case of Field Marshall Sir John Dill, who is also buried at Arlington. Dill had been Britain’s top soldier, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, until he was side-lined by Churchill with whom he did not get on. In December 1941, Dill was sent to the United States to become Head of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, then Senior British Member of the Combined Chiefs of Staff which coordinated the Anglo-American war effort. He died in Washington of aplastic anaemia on 4 November 1944, and was hugely mourned in American diplomatic and military circles.[3]

Dill tomb in Arlington

Sir John Dill’s grave in Arlington, under maintenance, April 2015. Courtesy of Jon Gray, who also took the photograph of the Wingate memorial stone.

The lavish style of Dill’s grave in Arlington did not meet with the approval of the Imperial War Graves Commission, which was dedicated to an ultra-plain and uniform style of commemoration, stressing the equality of all servicepeople in death. In one of the Commission’s official histories, there is almost a suggestion of resentment, as if Dill was the one who got away: ‘His handsome equestrian statue in Arlington was erected by the Americans: “unequal” treatment, but out of the Commission’s hands.’[4]

Interestingly, Dill’s grave became controversial in America too, for completely different reasons. These were to do with the growing American movement towards isolationism after the war. In November 1950, The Daily Mirror wrote indignantly:

Less than two months ago [Arlington] was the scene of a shameful piece of American political brawling over the erection of a memorial to Field-Marshal Sir John Dill. Sir John died while on duty in Washington during the war, and presumably as a surly reward for his services both to this country and the United States, the curious objection was made that a Briton should not be buried in “the nation’s most-hallowed burial ground”. The Veterans of Foreign Wars — an Isolationist movement with a strong anti-British persuasion — commented that the area that the Field-Marshal’s memorial occupied was space which would have accommodated 300 of America’s dead.[5]

[1] ‘Location, Identification, and Concentration of “UNKNOWNS” in Holland, 7 August 1946, Appendix E, Quarterly Historical Report of the North West Europe Graves Service HQ, for quarter ending 30 September 1946.

[2] Edwin Gibson and G Kingsley Ward, Courage Remembered, The Story Behind the Construction and Maintenance of the Commonwealth’s Military Cemeteries and Memorials of the Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 (HMSO, London, 1989), p.81.

[3] Alex Danchev, ‘The Strange Case of Field Marshall Sir John Dill’, Medical History (No. 35, 1991) pp.353-357.

[4] Edwin Gibson and G Kingsley Ward, Courage Remembered, p.81

[5] ‘Cassandra’, The Daily Mirror, 28 November 1950.