23 May 2017

Westminster service marks centenary

A special service of thanksgiving was held at Westminster Abbey today to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CWGC during the darkest days of the First World War.

The Abbey service paid tribute to this unique Commonwealth institution, which commemorates 1.7 million casualties of the two world wars. Their bodies are laid to rest in beautiful cemeteries, and the names of those with no known grave are remembered, by name, on magnificent memorials across the world. 

The Service of Thanksgiving included a band and an orchestra, the Westminster Abbey choir, a Maori choir, floral display, hymns and readings by dignitaries including Michael Fallon, Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence and Australian High Commissioner Alexander Downer.

The Civilian Rolls of Honour

At the heart of today’s service was the solemn rededication and blessing of the CWGC’s Civilian Rolls of Honour. During the Second World War Sir Fabian Ware became deeply concerned that civilian casualties should be properly commemorated. He suggested to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that the names of all those civilians who died in the UK and further afield throughout the Commonwealth, should be commemorated in beautiful handwritten volumes, which would forever be held at Westminster Abbey.

More than 67,000 names are carried on the pages of the CWGC’s Civilian Rolls of Honour. The names and ages record the many personal tragedies the Second World War brought to those on the home front and the CWGC’s determination that they would never be forgotten.

CWGC Director General Victoria Wallace said: “The story of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is one the whole world should take pride in. That Governments in 1917, amid the chaos and carnage of the First World War, had the vision to design, build and care for an estate of cemeteries and memorials of such beauty was a fitting testimony to their gratitude to all those who died for their countries. I hope everyone will help the CWGC celebrate the astonishing and enduring achievement which is now moving into its second century.

Westminster Abbey and the CWGC – the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

During the service a new biodegradable wreath made by CWGC Director of Horticulture David Richardson and Royal Horticultural Society Fellow Judith Blacklock was laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

The industrialised nature of the fighting in the First World War meant that many thousands of the dead could not be identified. The Commission buried these men beneath headstones bearing the memorable inscription chosen by Rudyard Kipling “A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR, KNOWN UNTO GOD”. 

It was a young army padre, Rev. David Railton MC, who first suggested that the body of one unknown soldier be returned to England to represent all those who had been lost in the Great War. In 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster Abbey, suggesting the burial should be in the Abbey, 'the Parish Church of the Empire'.

For more about the Civilian Rolls of Honour and new commemorative wreath click here.

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