When the First World War came to an end in November 1918, war graves were scattered throughout all of the regions where fighting had occurred. The locations and sites of many graves were no longer known and individuals still lay unburied in areas where fighting had been heaviest.

It is in this context that the majority of the CWGC archive casualty records came into existence. The Commission was set up to provide perpetual commemoration to those who had died while serving in the Commonwealth forces during the war. However, to achieve this aim, it first had to collect the necessary details regarding those individuals, including the location of their graves. This information was provided by Labour Companies and Graves Concentration Units who were set up under the control of the military authorities. They were tasked with searching for the graves and remains of the war dead and conducting the battlefield exhumation and reburials which resulted.

Where burials had occurred in established burial grounds with clearly marked graves, the graves were simply recorded and registered. In most other circumstances, the bodies required exhumation and reburial, during which process attempts were made to identify the individuals.

Old battlefields were searched for small cemeteries (usually of less than 40 graves), isolated graves and the previously unburied dead. All of those found were gathered into 'concentration' cemeteries, either newly created or built up around already existing burial grounds.

Despite the difficulty and unpleasantness of the work, the exhumation squads were methodical and meticulous in their searches. Most had seen active service themselves and were painstaking in their search for anything that would help identify a fallen comrade. Nevertheless, battlefield conditions meant that many of these vital indicators were lost and a high proportion of the bodies found remained unknown.

A Grave Registration Unit searching the battlefield for remains c. 1919 (IWM Q100910)

It was the job of the officer in charge of these search parties to record details about each body recovered, including the location where the remains were found, whether a cross was found on the grave and any regimental particulars or other means of identification found at the time. These details were written on a ticket which was attached to the remains prior to their removal and reburial. The cemetery officer would be present at each reburial and it would be his duty to record on a Burial Return form all the information that had been written on the original ticket. He would also record the plot, row and grave number of the reburial. These forms were collected daily and passed to the Army Burial Officer, who would then arrange for a copy to be sent to the Department of Graves Registrations and Enquiries. The registration officer was then responsible for registering the new graves and for preparing comprehensive reports of the new cemeteries.

The grave registration, concentration and exhumation records produced as a result of this work were passed to the Imperial War Graves Commission. They form the basis for the information we hold on those we commemorate. From these core records, the Commission was able to produce the various other documents which can be seen here, including the register entries (which provide the basic information about the individual) and headstone schedules (which were used to record what should be engraved on their headstones).

Mssrs Arrowsmith of Stockwell, London, engraving a headstone for a Canadian soldier (IWM Q100870)

For those with no known graves, the Commission was provided a list of missing individuals by the relevant military authorities which allowed the Commission to create their register entries. It also enabled a decision to be made on where the most appropriate place of commemoration was for each individual and to then set out the design and layout of the memorial panels on which their names would be recorded.

All of these documents were created in the pre-computer age and many of the grave registration and concentration records were usually typed up from handwritten reports produced in the field in all types of conditions. The records would have been typed by an army of administrative staff based in offices and base camps at various locations. While the Commission has always strived for accuracy, it is therefore not surprising that mistakes were made in the data recorded. This explains the Commission's desire to contact the individual's next of kin to provide additional verification for the records it held.

During the years after the end of the war, the Commission sent out hundreds of thousands of verification forms to next of kin, seeking corroboration of the details it held and additional information where needed. Where the details recorded on the original documentation were shown to be inaccurate, corrections were made and the documents annotated as required.

Imperial War Graves Commission staff in the St. Omer, France, base camp canteen (Goodland Collection)

These archive documents are of interest not only for showing the details of those who the Commission commemorates in its cemeteries and memorials around the world, but also for shedding light on the processes involved in providing appropriate commemoration for the dead. Although these processes have now been brought up to date with the use of computer technology, they are still a vital part of the work the Commission does today.