Sunday, March 30, 2014

History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Reviers, France

A very important part of the trip L and I took recently to Normandy and Ypres were the military cemeteries we visited to take some moments to reflect and pay our respects to the soldiers that fought and died during WWI and WWII. In France we visited an American, a German, a Canadian, and two Commonwealth cemeteries and then in Ypres we visited several more Commonwealth cemeteries.  Eventually I'd like to feature each one we visited but today I'd like to start with the history behind the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that created and continues to maintain the Commonwealth cemeteries and memorials.

As we slowly wandered through each one we noticed the similarities between them, wondered about the layout of some that seemed odd (in that they weren't all laid out in straight and tidy rows), and noted the higher proportion of unknown soldiers in WWI cemeteries in Ypres and the surrounding areas than in the WWII cemeteries in France. I picked up some pamphlets along the way and studied information at the Tyne Cot visitors center describing the story behind how these cemeteries and memorials came to be and the common symbols in each and this is what has led to today's post.

The story begins in 1914 when a former teacher, Fabian Ware, arrived in France. He wanted to enlist in the British army but was told he was too old so he joined, and later commanded, a British Red Cross Unit. His task was to lead a mobile unit that recovered injured soldiers and, all too often, bodies of fallen soldiers that need burial. During the war soldiers were typically buried near hospitals or battlefields and it was their comrades responsibility to mark their graves. Many of these records were lost or the simple crosses erected were damaged during the continued fighting. Fabian noticed the problems with this system and was very concerned that the graves would be lost forever. He and his unit took it upon themselves to start registering and caring for all the graves they could find.

Tyne Cot War Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium
In 1915 the War Office recognized the work of Ware's unit and they officially became the Graves Registration Commission. During this time they received hundreds of letters from the soldier's relatives looking for information and photographs of their loved ones' graves. By 1917, 12,000 photographs had been sent to relatives around the world. Later in 1917, Ware grew further concerned about the fate of the graves once the war was over and became convinced an official organization was needed. With the support of the Prince of Wales, he submitted a request for this to the Imperial War Conference and unanimously his request was granted and the Imperial War Graves Commission was established on May 21, 1917. Later in 1960, the name was changed to the current name, "Commonwealth War Graves Commission", a decision made when the Commission recognized the name "Imperial" in the title was not in tune with post war strengthening of national and regional feelings.

From Bayeux War Cemetery in France
In addition to recording the details of each soldier the IWGC began creating lasting memorials and cemeteries to commemorate the fallen soldiers. Debates and disagreements then ensued over how they should be created but in the end four principals were agreed upon:

  • Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial
  • Headstones and memorials should be permanent
  • Headstones should be uniform
  • There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed

By 1938 the building work for hundreds of memorials and cemeteries was complete but then only one year later WWII began and with it also began more burials. From WWII another 600,000 men and women were commemorated.

 In addition to the soldiers the Commission also recognized in WWII that casualties were no longer only military personnel and Ware insisted on the commemoration of the civilian deaths as well. Their over 66,000 names have been recorded on a roll of honour that was placed near St. George's Chapel at Westminster Abbey in 1956.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for cemeteries and memorials in 23,000 locations, in 153 countries. In all 1.7 million men and women from the Commonwealth forces from WWI and WWII have been honoured and commemorated in perpetuity.

Ranville War Cemetery in Ranville, France
To learn more about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, find a cemetery or a fallen soldier please visit their very informative website. 

Working alongside the CWGC is the War Graves Photographic Project that have undertaken the huge task of recording, archiving and making available to descendants the images of the graves or memorial listings of every service casualty since the outbreak of WWI. As of 2013, with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, they have been able to record over 1.7 million named graves and memorials and the task continues.


"I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war."
 - King George V, Flanders, 1922

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