Remembered - History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Remembered - Julie Summers

At the end of The Great War 1914-18 1,100,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were dead or missing. They are remembered on memorials to the missing and in the cemeteries of war graves.

The Second World War 1939-45 added another 600,000 casualties. The Commonwealth (formerly Imperial) War Graves Commission (CWGC), established in 1917, maintains the war graves and memorials in around 23,000 locations in over 150 countries.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The CWGC was founded with the mission to:

Commemorate in perpetuity those who died in the service of the British Empire in the Great War.

The founder of the commission was Sir Fabian Ware. The 45 year old volunteered to serve with the Red Cross and arrived in France in September 1914. The Red Cross unit he commanded took it upon themselves to record and care for all the graves that they could find.

In February 1915 his unit was given official recognition and became the Graves Registration Commission. They were now responsible for finding, marking and recording the graves of British officers and men in France.

By spring 1916 the Graves Registration Commission had become the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquires in response to the thousands of enquiries now pouring in from the relatives of the missing. (p. 15)

Negotiations with the French authorities led to them granting land for cemeteries, in France, for the British war dead in perpetuity.

In order to care for the graves after the war an official organisation the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in May 1917. The first meeting of the Commission took place on 20 November 1917. Lord Derby was the Commission's chairmen and Fabian Ware became Vice Chairman. The decision was taken that:

in the erection of memorials on the graves there should be no distinction between officers and men. (p. 16)

The headstones on the graves were to be of a uniform size and would carry the rank, name, regiment and date of death. Relatives would be allowed to add their own short inscription which would require to be approved by the Commission.

The design of the memorials and cemeteries in France and Belguim was to be the responsibility of the architects Sir Edwin Lutyens, Reginald Blomfield and Herbert Baker. Sir Edwin Lutyens proposed that cemeteries should have a Stone of Remembrance which would have the short inscription upon it of:

Their Name Liveth For Evermore

Reginald Blomfield suggested that cemeteries should have a Cross of Sacrifice which would be made of stone and faced with a bronze sword.

Other architects were appointed and given responsibility for other areas of conflict. Sir Robert Lorimer was given responsibility for Italy and North Africa and Sir John James Burnet was appointed for Palestine and Gallipoli.

Rudyard Kipling was the literary advisor to the Commission from 1917 until his death in 1936. It was Kipling who proposed the wording of "Their Name Liveth for Evermore" for the Stone of Remembrance. Kipling lost his only son at Loos in September 1915.

After 1921 a general search for the bodies of those killed was no longer carried out. However, in the following three years farmers and others came across 38,000 bodies. By the mid-1920s between 20 and 30 were discovered each week.

Even today the remains of soldiers are still discovered at about 30 a year. Those found are buried with all due reverence by the Commission.

Memorials to the Missing

The names of the missing were to be commemorated on campaign monuments. At Ypres in Belgium the Menin Gate memorial was sited there because of:

...the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields of the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918. (p. 21)

The inscription on the Menin Gate memorial reads:

To the Armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no known grave.

Each evening at 8pm at the Menin Gate buglers from the Last Post Association sound the Last Post.

The memorial at Thiepval to the Missing of the Somme has over 72,000 names on it. Most of them died between July and November 1916.

Visit of King George V

In May 1922 King George V paid a visit to France and Belgium to see the war cemeteries. One of the cemeteries he visited was Etaples where he talked to one of the gardeners.

...[The King] surprised onlookers by removing from his pocket an envelope that contained a small bunch of forget-me-nots. A dead soldier's mother had sent Queen Mary a letter containing the bunch and had asked her to ensure that it was placed on her son's grave. The King asked the gardener to show him to the headstone and then bent down to place the flowers, requesting the gardener to keep them watered for as long as possible. (p. 34)

Second World War

The 2nd World War required that the Commission produce another 370,000 headstones and add the names of 250,000 to memorials.

The single greatest problem faced by the Commission after the war was distance. Some 70 new countries had Commonwealth dead, and many of these were on the other side of the world. (p. 40)

The climates were also extreme from the hot jungles of Thailand, to the humid heat of Singapore, to the monsoon area of north-east India.

In the United Kingdom the largest CWGC cemetery is Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, England. It was created in 1917 but was extended after the 2nd World War. Over 5000 British and Commonwealth are buried there. The graves at Brookwood include a large Royal Air Force section, 2400 Canadian graves, Americans, Poles, French, Czech, as well as other nationalities.

...care for its cemeteries and memorials remains at the heart of the Commission's work today and will continue to remain so in perpetuity. (p. 45)

Sir Fabian Ware retired from the Commission in 1948 and died the following year aged 80.

Remembered - The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Author - Julie Summers. Photography by Brian Harris. Foreword by Ian Hislop.
ISBN - 1858943744
Publisher - Merrell Publishers Ltd in 2007.
Book Availability - Amazon (UK) - Amazon (US) - BookFinder.com

The Remembered book is a large coffee table sized book measuring almost 30cm by 30cm. Julie Summers writes about the history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which takes up a quarter of the book. The rest of the book consists of large photographs taken by Brian Harris of the Commission cemeteries and memorials around the world.

Related Material

  • Remembering the Fallen, photographer Brian Harris reflects on six months of photography for the CWGC. He travelled thousands of miles, visited 250 locations and shot hundreds of rolls of film to capture the photographs for the book Remembered.
  • Remembered, JulieSummers.co.uk
  • The Great War 1914-18

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This page was added on 12 February 2012.