The Commonwealth War Graves

David Ingleby introduced himself as a volunteer member whose function is to promote the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. His presentation was a bit of an eye opener for me as I was certainly unaware that the CWGC tends nearly 13,000 locations in the UK alone. He certainly furnished us with some amazing facts and figures including much detailed information on the Commission’s background and how it came into existence.

During the gruelling and bloody First World War, many of those who died were left where they fell; some were dragged away and buried wherever was convenient by the surviving soldiers, but in the mayhem, no records were kept of who they were. When Fabian Ware who was working for the British Red Cross at the time, saw graves in the corners of fields, not only was he shocked and saddened by the number of these makeshift graves and improvised cemeteries but, he became very concerned that nobody was recording where these soldiers’ final resting places were. As a consequence, he recognised that there could be no possibility of a family attended burial or headstone at a later date so, he petitioned the Red Cross to start recording the graves and, as a result, was given the title of Head of the Graves Registration Unit. Its task was to record where service personnel were being buried so, Ware employed three photographers to photograph all the locations of graves so he could try to identify those buried in them.

After receiving a Royal Charter in May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established and, following the Armistice in 1918 Fabian Ware was tasked with the role of registering all the graves and planning cemeteries and memorials to the fallen. Some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties were registered as having no known grave. In order to assist him in his mission, he brought together a remarkable group of creative and significant minds of the time which included the architects Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield to design the lasting memorials, Rudyard Kipling who would write the inscriptions and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew for horticultural advice. One of the most important principles that was quickly established was that all headstones would be the same with no distinction made by rank, race or creed.

The construction of all the planned cemeteries and memorials was huge but it was finally completed in 1938 however, just one year later, the start of the Second World War expanded the Commission’s work to around the globe, and in 1960, the name was changed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to remember all those who died from the 54 countries of the Commonwealth.

The CWGC is now supported by the governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and of course the United Kingdom in its work to pay tribute to the 1.7 million men and women who lost their lives and, care for their graves and memorials in more than 23,000 locations in over 150 countries and territories. With over 1.1 million headstones to look after, each one is maintained in perfect condition to preserve the memory of the dead with simple dignity and true equality. Over 900 gardeners are working around the world to manage the landscaping and planting alongside teams of maintenance workers who ensure every memorial is safe and the brickwork preserved.  Very sadly, the current conflicts in some countries has resulted in the destruction or desecration of some cemeteries and memorials which is putting pressure on the local CWGC to rectify the damage.

The work of the CWGC is and will be forever on going as even today, the remains of up to 40 bodies are discovered on the Western Front every year. Although they cannot always be identified, they are nevertheless, reburied as no one is forgotten because, by preserving the memory of the dead, the Commission hopes to encourage future generations to remember the sacrifice made by so many.

About Nadia Dawson

Retired primary headteacher now working at Lincoln University
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