Conservation management at CWGC

As the Commission enters its second century, one thing has remained constant – the devotion to caring for the cemeteries and memorials established after the First and Second World Wars to commemorate the 1.7 million Commonwealth dead. Our challenge, a century on, is finding a balance between maintaining these places, so that they fulfil the function they were designed for, and understanding, maintaining and preserving the wider significance they have.

Beehive Cemetery, France, in 1918 and  

Beehive Cemetery, France, in the early 1920s and early 2000s

Conserving our Historic Estate

The construction of memorials and cemeteries to commemorate the dead of the First World War was only completed in 1938 with the unveiling of the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. The Commission’s commitment expanded globally after the Second World War, and today it cares for war graves and memorials at 23,000 locations, in more than 150 countries and territories.

Over the years, the Commission’s cemeteries and memorials have evolved naturally – ageing but remaining true to their founding design and purpose. More revolutionary has been the changing landscape within which they are located and the way in which the task of caring for them has changed.

Many of our cemeteries and memorials were designed by world-renowned architects, sculptors and artists, and in recent years the significance of our estate has been formally recognised in a number of countries as cemeteries and memorials are listed in increasing numbers or under consideration for World Heritage Site status. With such recognition and protection comes additional responsibility and this is why the Commission is implementing a Heritage Strategy to guide its work for the future.

Our Charter defines our mission as being “in perpetuity” but few buildings last forever, unaltered, without intervention. The aim of our heritage strategy is twofold – to help our staff and public appreciate the inherent “value” of our sites in the wider historical, cultural and commemorative context; and to ensure that any required intervention is identified well in advance, prioritised accordingly and, when implemented, is done sympathetically.

Rather than a process of continual replacement and renewal of materials – many of which (like headstones) are finite resources, we seek to preserve and conserve our structures, but remain true to our principle of commemorating the names of the fallen in perpetuity. This means regularly carrying out Structural Condition Surveys of all our structures which, not only identify current, past and even future challenges, but inform the longer term strategy for addressing our structural needs and priorities.

The Commission's conservation philosophy is underpinned by the following Heritage Principles:

  • Equality of treatment of the dead and missing is of paramount importance
  • The sites must have a sense of dignity and inspiration
  • Commemorations must be legible
  • The heritage value of the Historic Estate must be preserved for future generations
  • The Historic Estate will be sustainably managed
  • The cemeteries and memorials must look cared for

Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood, in 1918 and

Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood, in the early 1920s and early 2000s

The same thinking has been applied to the most visible sign of our work – the more than one million headstones that mark the graves of the fallen around the world.

Headstones

An early expert committee, which included Edwin Lutyens, MacDonald Gill and Gilbert Ledward, considered the issue of legibility. They advised that ‘Inscriptions may be carved in stone for many uses but the monumental inscription is usually designed to be a record for those who care to search for it rather than an announcement to the world — not so much an advertisement as a confidence’.

The legibility of headstones is key to our commemoration of the war dead, and the Commission devotes considerable time and resource on inspecting, re-engraving and, where necessary, replacing headstones.

The Commission has in place Headstone Legibility Guidance to avoid the unnecessary replacement of stone. The casualty’s name must always be legible and further details identifiable. If a headstone falls below the acceptable levels then intervention is required.

Legibility can vary according to the type of stone, the angle and depth of the incisions, the light conditions, the cleanliness and the moisture content of the stone at the time of examination.

The cleanliness of a headstone can also affect legibility, but gentle cleaning is often all that is required. Headstones are not expected to look permanently new; some soiling, marking, lichen etc. is to be expected as the stone is exposed to the elements. 

In many cases, where the stone is basically sound, it is economically and environmentally good practice to re-engrave without removing the headstone. Repairs, such as stone inserts, mortar repair  and re-engraving are carried out as part of the Commission’s conservation-led approach, and replacement of a headstone should be the last option.

Headstone repairs

Headstone re-engraving (left) and an example of where a stone indent is required (right)

Where there is no choice but to replace the headstone, a suitable replacement stone is used. When the original stones are no longer available, the Commission endeavours to source the most appropriate stone type, both visually and geologically. Ensuring the headstones are of the same stone type gives the cemetery a uniformity which enhances our founding principles of equality of treatment.

Across CWGC's sites there are more than 25 different types of headstone, most of which are engraved at the Commission’s headstone production facility near Arras in France. Our conservation-based approach ensures headstones are only replaced when absolutely necessary, typically some 3,000 a year, while in France and Belgium alone around 15,000 headstones are re-engraved each year.

Headstone engraving

A new headstone being engraved at the Commission's Headstone Production Unit in Beaurains, France

FIRST WORLD WAR HEADSTONE BADGES

Following the end of the First World War the then Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission began the task of marking and caring for the graves of those who died.

One of the biggest challenges facing the newly created organisation was the manufacture of more than 500,000 headstones. The vast majority of these were made by hand, under contract to stonemasons across the United Kingdom.

In recent years it has come to light that a number of mistakes were made in the carving of cap badges. In some cases the badges used are incorrect – for example RAF instead of RFC.

These “heritage errors” will be corrected on an opportunity basis as and when the headstone needs to be replaced.