Sunday, April 6, 2014

Design and Structure of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries

Last Sunday I started a series of posts about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and wrote about the history of the Commission and how the cemeteries came to be created. This week I'd like to continue in this series by describing the structure of these cemeteries, the symbols found within them, and the design of the stones marking the burials of the fallen soldiers.

Sir Frederic Kenyon who described his vision of the cemeteries in 1918 said this: 
 "The general appearance of a British cemetery will be that of an enclosure with plots of grass or flowers (or both) separated by paths of varying size, and set with orderly rows of headstones, uniform in height and width.  Shrubs and trees will be arranged in various places, sometimes as clumps at the junctions of ways, sometimes as avenues along the sides of the principal paths, sometimes around the borders of the cemetery.  The graves will, wherever possible, face towards the east, and at the eastern end of the cemetery will be a great altar stone, raised upon broad steps, and bearing some brief and appropriate phrase or text.  Either over the stone, or elsewhere in the cemetery, will be a small building, where visitors may gather for shelter or for worship, and where the register of the graves will be kept.  And at some prominent spot will rise the Cross, as the symbol of the Christian faith and of the self-sacrifice of the men who now lie beneath its shadow."

The structure and design of the cemeteries and memorials played an important part from the very beginning of their creation. Except for a few exceptions, due to local geological conditions, all of the cemeteries follow the same design globally so that they may be easily recognized and distinguished from war graves of other countries or groups.

Perth Cemetery in Belgium

Typically the cemeteries are surrounded by a low wall or hedge with a wrought-iron gate at the entrance. Notably for cemeteries in France and Belgium, a land tablet is found near the entrance to identify that the grounds have been provided the the French or Belgian government.

Land tablet and register at Bayeux War Cemetery in France


All but the very smallest cemeteries also contain a register with an inventory of the burials, a plan of the plots and rows, and a basic history of the cemetery. These registers are found in metal cupboards marked with a cross found near the entrance or in a shelter within the cemetery.

The grounds are covered in grass with a floral border around the headstones (except in drier climates) and were designed as such to make the cemetery feel like a traditional walled garden where visitors could feel a sense of peace instead of traditionally bleak graveyards.

"There is no reason why cemeteries should be places of gloom."
~ Sir Frederic Kenyon, How the Cemeteries Abroad Will be Designed, 1918

Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium

Cross of Sacrifice

Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the cross of sacrifice is a symbol of the selflessness displayed by those commemorated in each cemetery and represents the denominations of all Christians. On each one is a downward facing bronze sword that symbolizes that the battle has been fought and those that gave their lives are now mourned. In order not to overshadow the grave stones a cross of sacrifice is only placed in those cemeteries with more than 40 graves. In cemeteries with a majority of non-Christians buried there is no cross, but instead they may have another symbol of the culture of the majority of the soldiers such as a magnificent pine tree representing longevity and endurance as found in the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer in France.

Stone of Remembrance

The Stone of Remembrance was designed by an architect Edward Luytens and expresses the idea of eternity. It can be found in each cemetery that has more than 1000 graves and each one bears the words "Their Name Liveth for Evermore" which was chosen by Rudyard Kipling from the Old Testament. Although the words are from the Bible the Stone of Remembrance was designed to be a non-Christian memorial as a sign of respect for the diversity of the 1.7 million commemorated. Unlike the other religious symbols it is meant to represent everyone. Their bodies are buried in peace and their name liveth for evermore.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in France

British headstones at Bayeux War Cemetery in France


On almost all headstones is a cross, whether wide or narrow depending on the country and regiment of the soldier, which shows the faith of those fallen. There are also some stones that bear the Star of David to mark the graves of Jewish casualties, and some bear no religious symbol at all at the request of some families.

The emblem on all Canadian headstones

All British headstones bear the regimental badges (including those of Irish regiments) and the others are marked with their respective national emblem.

Personal Details

Each headstone is marked at the top with the soldier's name, number, unit, date of death and, often,his age. Preceding his name is his rank or Private if he was in the infantry, Gunner if he was an artilleryman, Sapper if he was with the engineers, and so on.

Sadly many bodies could not be identified at all and bear the inscription "A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God" that was also developed by Rudyard Kipling. If they could be partially identified then the headstone carries the additional known information.

Where applicable the soldier's decorations, such as Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal, follow the soldier's name on the stone.

Unknown soldiers at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium


Soldier's families could chose an epitaph to be added to the bottom of the headstone. Many chose lines from poems or the Bible, while others chose more personal messages to show their pride and love. Interestingly Australian headstones have the highest ratio of epitaphs yet New Zealand headstones contain none.

Special Memorials

When a soldier is known to be buried in a particular cemetery but the exact location of his grave can not be determined, he is commemorated by a "Special Memorial". His name will appear on this stone only, and not on a Memorial to the Missing. Engraved above his name will be one of the following inscriptions:
a)  "Believed to be"
b)  "Believed to be buried in this cemetery"
c)  "Known to be buried in this cemetery"
d)  "To the memory of"

For those soldiers where there is no known grave his name is inscribed on a Memorial to the Missing. In the coming weeks I'll have some information about these memorials too, most specifically those at the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot.

To view information about each of the 23,000 cemeteries and memorials maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission you can visit their website and search their databases for particular cemeteries or soldiers.

"Where the sacrifices had been common, the memorial should be common also" 
~ How the Cemeteries Abroad will be Designed, 1918

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