Empire of the Dead
The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was the very first of the war grave organisations.
It is difficult for those of us who have become familiar with the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate our war dead to appreciate what a revolutionary idea remembrance and, therefore, the Commission was in 1917. Nonetheless, the Commission was a pioneer and what it was doing during and in the aftermath of the First World War was extraordinary.
Never had a nation, let alone an Empire as vast and multicultural as the British Empire, attempted to commemorate all its war dead from a given conflict. No template existed for the task of commemorating the dead on such a mammoth scale. Everything we now take for granted, every facet of remembrance, had to be worked out, debated, costed and delivered.
The Commission, and the establishment of remembrance as we know it, is largely thanks to the vision and determination of one man.
Cometh the hour…
At the age of 45, Fabian Ware was too old to fight when the First World War started in 1914 but he was determined to “do his bit”. His pre-war career was varied – he had been an educator in South Africa, the Editor of The Morning Post newspaper in the UK, and was a committed Francophile and fluent French speaker. He became the commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross – initially attached to the French sector of what we now call the Western Front.
Fabian was shocked by what he found. The sheer number of casualties was without precedent. There was no system in place to bury the dead or record or mark their final resting places. If men were buried, it was usually by their comrades and their grave markers, a temporary wooden cross. Many more bodies were simply left where they were – unreachable in no man’s land.
Fabian became determined that the dead would not be lost or forgotten. His vision chimed with the times. Under his dynamic leadership, his unit began recording and caring for all the graves they could find behind the lines of the Western Front. By 1915, their work was given official recognition by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.
But Fabian was still not happy. What would happen to the graves once the war was over and the Army had left France and Belgium. He became convinced of the need for an independent organisation that would reflect the spirit of Imperial cooperation evident in the war and the permanence of commemoration.
Encouraged by the Prince of Wales, he submitted a memorandum to the Imperial War Conference in 1917 suggesting such an organisation be created. It was unanimously approved and so the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917, with the Prince serving as President and Ware as Vice-Chairman.
The Commission set the highest standards for all its work. Three of the most eminent architects of the day - Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield - were chosen to begin the work of designing and constructing the war cemeteries and memorials. Rudyard Kipling was tasked as literary advisor to recommend inscriptions.
Ware asked Sir Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, to interpret the differing approaches of the principal architects. The report he presented to the Commission in November 1918 emphasised equality as the core ideology by which it should operate.
The dead were to be buried where they fell – there would be no repatriation of remains – and rather than a cross, a standard headstone would be used to mark their graves. For those with no known grave, great memorials to the missing would be erected to ensure they would also be remembered. In all cases, no distinction would be made between those lost – as their sacrifice had been common, their commemoration would be common also.Read The Kenyon Report
The impossible task
The Commission faced some almost insurmountable challenges, but it was also a product of its time, and both these aspects would impact the commemorative landscape that we know today. To start, there was the mammoth task of identifying hundreds of thousands of war dead, many of whom had been hastily buried in ad-hoc battlefield graves, or whose war records were inaccurate, fabricated or, at times, missing entirely. The Commission’s work also stretched far beyond the comparatively confined battlefields of the Western Front to theatres where the nature of recruitment and the fighting, as well as the inadequacy of wartime burials and administrative paperwork, left a legacy of missing men and missing names. Faced with these and other difficulties, and influenced by entrenched imperial attitudes towards some of the peoples of empire, it is now clear that the Commission did not always adhere to its principles so rigidly applied in Europe.
Closer to home, the very idea of commemorating all the dead in the same way was considered controversial. Some families maintained their own ideas of how they wanted to mark the graves of their loved ones and were desperate to bring them back. They railed against the Commission’s policy of non-repatriation. For others, the decision to cater for different religions caused anger from a predominantly Christian Great Britain. A petition of over 8,000 signatures was raised to register protest at the decision to use rectangular headstones rather than cruciform shaped markers.
These factors placed enormous pressures on the Commission as it tried to see through its vision, and although always driven by the spirit of unity through common sacrifice, the outcomes of this work were not always as uniform or equal as the organisation had promised.
“The single biggest bit of work since any of the Pharaohs!”
Nonetheless, after the first “experimental” cemeteries were built in Europe in 1920 and were warmly received by the press, much of the public came to appreciate what Ware and his fledgling organisation was attempting to create. The Commission then embarked on one of the largest building programmes ever seen. The mammoth task of creating the First World War cemeteries and memorials would not be complete until 1938 and just one year later, the same organisation would be asked to commemorate the dead of a Second world War.
The CWGC is now a truly global organisation – working to care for war graves at 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories. We commemorate almost 1.7 million individuals.
And looking after that global estate is a multinational and multilingual workforce numbering approximately 1,300 – the vast majority of whom are gardeners and stone masons.
Our work continues
Today, over a hundred years later, we continue to work to ensure that all the Commonwealth men and women who died during both world wars are commemorated in a manner befitting their sacrifice.
Since our establishment by Royal Charter we have constructed 2,500 war cemeteries and plots, erected headstones over graves and where the remains are missing, inscribed the names of the dead on permanent memorials. More than a million burials are now commemorated at military and civil sites in more than 150 countries and territories.
As well as maintaining these sites, we continue to look for gaps and differences in the way we commemorate. From amending records, to searching for missing names, to building new memorials, the CWGC is committed to ensuring that the memory of all the Commonwealth men and women who died in the two world wars lives on. This work will continue until all the war dead of the Commonwealth, wherever they came from and wherever they fell, are remembered as we originally promised, recognising the contribution and sacrifice of all those who served and died.
To learn more about our work on historical inequalities in commemoration, see here.To learn more about our work on historical inequalities in commemoration, click here.
Into the future
We are proud that, one hundred years later, our cemeteries and memorials stand across the globe, giving the friends and families of all that fell during the wars a place to pay their respects and remember their loved ones.
Many of these places require increasing amounts of care from our conservation teams but we also have a duty to ensure our sites remain well visited and, therefore, remembrance of the war dead continues.
To realise that, we have created information centres, volunteering opportunities and education programmes designed to engage and educate generations to come.
Learn more about these initiatives or consider supporting our outreach work by joining our charitable foundation here.
For the next hundred years, and beyond, we will continue to honour our war dead – building upon our history and traditions while always striving for innovation and excellence.