As we commemorate the ending of the First World War it is fitting that we remember all those who paid the ultimate price. We are all aware of cemeteries around the world which contain the graves of soldiers who died far from home, and if you have ever visited one you will have been impressed by the standard of care which is taken to keep these places of remembrance at their best. This work is carried out by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) which was the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware. The CWGC builds and maintains cemeteries and memorials in more than 150 countries and territories and also creates and preserves archives with extensive records of the fallen. Ware was 45 when war broke out and so too old to fight but he was determined to play his part so became the commander of a mobile unit in the British Red Cross. Arriving in France in 1914 he was appalled and saddened at the huge loss of life he saw, and also by the fact that there was no official way of documenting and recording the graves. Determined that none of the fallen would be forgotten he organised for his unit to begin recording and caring for all the graves they could find. Municipal cemeteries were soon full and Ware negotiated for France to grant land in perpetuity to Britain which would become responsible for the management and maintenance of the graves there. People heard about Ware’s work and he began to get letters from people asking for photographs of the graves of their loved ones. By 1917 17,000 photos had been sent. At the same time graves were being recorded in Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia as well as France.
Many people were impressed with this work which was officially recognised by the War Office when the unit was incorporated into the British Army in 1915 and became known as the Graves Registration Commission. Ware wanted his Commission to show the same Imperial cooperation that could be seen in the armed forces so he approached the Imperial War Conference for their help and advice. With the support of the Prince of Wales the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Royal Charter on 21st May 1917; Ware was Vice-Chairman and the Prince of Wales was the first President.
When the war ended in November 1918 land was found for the new cemeteries and memorials and the terrible task of recovering and re-interring the bodies of the dead began. Conscripted soldiers undertook this work which must have been very difficult and resulted in emotional and mental problems for many as they recovered thousands of bodies, some four or more years old. Using Ware’s existing records as a foundation around 587,000 graves had been identified by the end of 1918, and the register of those having no known grave had reached 559,000. It was decided that the bodies should not be repatriated but lie beside their brothers in arms, it was also decided that all of the graves would be identical so that men of all ranks would be treated equally.
The Commission were determined that the work they had undertaken would be carried out to the highest of standards and so they employed three of the most important architects of the time – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – to design and build the memorials and cemeteries; Rudyard Kipling (who lost his son in the war) was asked to help with the inscriptions. The garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, helped the architects to created a walled cemetery with a garden. This became the template for all other cemeteries which were ready to receive the dead by 1921, and between 1920 and 1923 4,000 headstones were being shipped to France every week. By 1927 the majority of the work had been completed with over 500 cemeteries built and over 400,000 headstones in place; in addition 1,000 ‘Crosses of Sacrifice’ designed by Blomfield and 400 ‘Stones of Remembrance’ designed by Lutyens were also in place.
When the war ended the British Army was responsible for the exhumation of remains, by September 1921 the 12-man teams had exhumed and reburied 204,695 bodies. No more searches were conducted after that, but bodies continued to be discovered (in the following 3 years alone the remains of another 38,000 soldiers were found). In the mid-1920’s 20 to 30 bodies were being discovered every week, and even today around 30 bodies are found every year.
Some of the latest bodies of First World War soldiers to be recovered include:
- In 2006 eight bodies of Canadian soldiers from the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers), CEF were discovered in a backyard in Hallu, France.
- The remains of four British soldiers discovered by a French farmer clearing land with a metal detector in 2009 were re-interred at H.A.C. Cemetery near Arras, France in April 2013.
- In March 2014, the remains of 20 Commonwealth and 30 German soldiers were discovered at Vendin-le-Vieil, France. The Commonwealth soldiers were reburied at Loos British Cemetery.
When the remains of a Commonwealth soldier from the First or Second World War are discovered the Commission is notified, and a burial officer collects any artefacts found with the body which might help to identify the individual. The details of the find are then registered and archived at the Commission’s headquarters.
All of the cemeteries created and cared for by the Commission have a similar design. They are usually enclosed by a low hedge or wall with a wrought-iron entrance gate. Inside all but the very smallest of the cemeteries you will find a plan of the site and register of all the burials there, this is kept in a metal cupboard which can be accessed by anyone searching for a particular soldier. The cemeteries are laid to grass with no pathways, and each headstone has flowers planted beside it (except in very dry countries). The flowers are often native species which closely resemble flowers of England. If there are a lot of cemeteries in an area (e.g. along the Western Front or in Gallipoli) a team of local gardeners will care for them, in large cemeteries there will be a dedicated staff whilst small ones may just have one gardener who works part-time.
If a cemetery has more than 40 graves it will also have a Cross Of Remembrance designed by Reginald Blomfield, which is a free-standing cross (usually carved from limestone) with a bronze medieval longsword embedded in its face. The cross is intended to represent the faith of the majority of the dead whilst the sword is an expression of the Christian concept of self-sacrifice. The larger cemeteries (those with more than 1,000 burials) also have a Stone of Remembrance designed by Edwin Lutyens; this stone is inscribed with the words ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’. Unlike the Cross Of Remembrance, the Stone deliberately avoids reference to any particular religion.
Every grave is marked with a headstone which contains the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty carved above an appropriate religious symbol, sometimes it will also have a more personal dedication chosen by relatives. If the cemetery is in an area which may be at risk of earthquakes a memorial plaque is placed at ground level rather than using a headstone which might fall. If the person who had died had been awarded wither the Victoria Cross or the George Cross and image of this will also be engraved on the headstone. There are, sadly, many graves where the casualty has not been able to be identified, in such cases the words ‘A Soldier of the Great War known unto God’ will be used in place of a name.
Unfortunately, the First World War did not prove to be ‘the war to end all wars’ and the Commission was called upon to continue its work during the Second World War and other conflicts which have followed. Winston Churchill recognised that civilians were paying an increasingly heavy price in war and so the Commission was given the task of recording the names of civilians who had died due to enemy action during the Second World War. The Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour is housed in Saint George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
In 1960 the name of the Imperial War Graves Commission was changed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The work of remembrance continues; in 2008 mass graves were discovered on the edge of Pheasant Wood near Fromelles. Two-hundred and fifty British and Australian bodies were recovered and re-interred in a new cemetery, the first to be opened in more than fifty years.
Since its creation the CWGC has created 2,500 war cemeteries, but there are many fallen soldiers who have no known grave – there were 315,000 in France and Belgium alone – and their names are written on permanent memorials. Reginald Blomfield designed the Menin Gate which was the first of the large memorials to be completed and was unveiled on 24th July 1927. Despite its size there was not enough space to list all of the names as had been planned and so Herbert Baker designed Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing which recorded a further 34,984 names. Other large memorial for those with no known grave are:
the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli
the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme
the Arras Memorial
Basra Memorial in Iraq
The Dominions and India also erected memorials on which they commemorated their missing:
the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial for the forces of India
the Vimy Memorial by Canada
the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial by Australia
the Delville Wood Memorial by South Africa
the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial by Newfoundland
So, as we commemorate the end of the First World War and all those who have given so much in service of their country let us take a few moments to pause and reflect on the sacrifices they have made.
The Soldier by Rupert Brooke 1887 – 1915
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.