Commonwealth War Graves Commission

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Azmak Cemetery, Gallipoli Peninsula

The Azmak Cemetery, near Suvla Bay, Turkey, contains the graves of some of the soldiers who died during the Gallipoli Campaign.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is a joint governmental organisation responsible for marking and maintaining the graves of members of the Commonwealth of Nations' military forces that died in the two world wars, to build memorials to those with no known grave, and to keep records of the war dead. The CWGC changed its name in 1960 from the Imperial War Graves Commission, which was formed in 1917 following the earlier work of the Graves Registration Commission.

Based in Maidenhead, the United Kingdom, the commission is responsible for the commemoration of 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women in 150 countries worldwide. It has constructed and maintains around 2,500 cemeteries and is responsible for Commonwealth war graves in other cemeteries. There are 73,000 such cemeteries containing Commonwealth war graves worldwide, of which over 12,000 are in the United Kingdom.[1]

The six member nations are Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Newfoundland was a founding member but ceased to have separate status in 1949, when it became a part of Canada. The President of the CWGC is HRH The Duke of Kent.

The largest cemeteries are in France and Belgium, and were built after the First World War. There are also cemeteries in the Middle East and Iraq, as a result of battles against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, and in North Africa, the Far East and Italy from the Second World War. The largest CWGC cemetery is Tyne Cot Cemetery, north of Ypres, Belgium, which contains nearly 12,000 graves; the smallest maintained isolated site contains the remains of only Rupert Brooke, on Skyros in Greece.[2] Memorials were also constructed to commemorate the dead who have no known grave; the largest of these is the Thiepval Memorial, which is 45 metres high and carries the names of over 72,000 missing servicemen from the Battle of the Somme.

A project is currently underway to photograph the graves of and memorials to all service personnel from 1914 to the present day. The work is being carried out by the British War Memorial Project in conjunction with the CWGC and the Ministry of Defence. The project has archived 500,000 photographs (as of November 2006).



A Commonwealth Cross of Sacrifice or War Cross

The Cross of Sacrifice

Each cemetery is made up of rows of white gravestones; unlike French or German graves, these are rectangles with rounded tops, not shaped like crosses. Each stone is marked with a cross, except for those where the deceased was known to belong to another religion, in which case another symbol is engraved. If the deceased was of no religion, no religious emblem is engraved on the headstone. The graves are marked with the name, rank and unit symbol of the deceased.

Headstone Lance Cpl E J Radford 3438

In the evening
And the morning
We will remember them.

Many gravestones are for unidentified casualties; they consequently bear only what could be discovered from the body, such as "A Soldier of the Great War" or "A Soldier of the Second World War" and "Known unto God", a phrase proposed by Rudyard Kipling.

Some graves also have an additional phrase chosen by the next of kin. In the case of First World War graves, these were charged to the family at 3½ pence per letter, a significant sum in the 1920s when the headstones were erected.[3]

The cemeteries are normally surrounded by a low brick wall, often with a decorative gate over the entrance. Many have an identical limestone war memorial, called the 'Cross of Sacrifice' and designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield; these vary in height from 4.5 m to 9 m, depending on the size of the cemetery. If there are a thousand or more burials, the cemetery also contains a 'Stone of Remembrance', designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and bearing words from Ecclesiasticus: "Their name liveth for evermore". All the Stones of Remembrance are 3.5 m long and 1.5 m high, with three steps leading up to them. Each cemetery has a plaque that explains in which war the soldiers died and provides some background history. They also have a visitors' book and a register of everyone buried in the cemetery.

Stone of Remembrance 3461

The Stone of Remembrance

On the Gallipoli Peninsula and in the Far East the cemeteries have slightly different design features. To prevent masonry sinking into water-sodden ground, the graves have stone-faced pedestal markers rather than headstones, and instead of a freestanding Cross of Sacrifice, the cross is built into a wall. The smaller size of the markers mean that they lack unit insignia.[4][5]


CWGC cemeteries are distinctive in treating floriculture as an integral part of the cemetery design. Originally the intention was to allow visitors and mourners to experience a more peaceful environment, in contrast to traditionally bleak graveyards.[6] The architects were aided by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, which information allowed the architectural designs take into account the requirements of various plants. Lutyens furthered his long-standing working relationship with Gertrude Jekyll, and her foremost expertise was employed in transforming the cemeteries into gardens of remembrance.[6]

Where possible, indigenous plants are utilised to further connection between the interred and their surroundings.[6] The beds around the headstones are planted with a mixture of floribunda roses and herbaceous perennials; short varieties are planted in front of the headstones, to avoid obscuring the details of the deceased whilst preventing soil from being thrown onto the white stone when it rains.[6]


Cwgc unknown soldier

The pedestal marker at Haidar Pasha Cemetery, Turkey, of an unidentified soldier killed during the First World War

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Fabian Ware, who had been responsible for education in South Africa and a member of the board of the Rio Tinto Company, found that, at 45, he was too old to join the British Army. He used the influence of his friend, Viscount Milner, to obtain command of a Red Cross Mobile unit, arriving in France in September 1914. Whilst there he was struck by the lack of any official mechanism for marking the graves of those that were killed. He made it his task to change this, and created an organisation within the Red Cross for this purpose. This organisation was transferred (along with Ware) to the British Army in 1915.[7] By October 1915, the new Graves Registration Commission had over 31,000 graves registered, and 50,000 by May 1916.[8]

As well as recording details about graves, the organisation handled numerous requests from relatives for details or photographs of the graves, and had sent out around 12,000 photographs by 1917.[9] As the war continued, Ware became concerned about the fate of the graves after the war. With the help of Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1917 he submitted a memorandum on the subject to the Imperial War Conference. On May 21, 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was created by a Royal Charter, with the Prince of Wales as its President and Ware as its Vice-Chairman, a role that Ware held until 1948.

A committee under Sir Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum, presented a report in November 1918 on how the cemeteries should be developed. Two key elements of this were that bodies should not be repatriated and that uniform memorials should be used to avoid class distinctions. Both of these issues generated considerable public discussion, which eventually led to a heated debate in Parliament on May 4, 1920, with opponents arguing for the rights of the individual. The matter was eventually settled with Kenyon's conclusions being accepted.

Three of the most eminent architects of their day, Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Reginald Blomfield, and Sir Edwin Lutyens were commissioned to design the cemeteries and memorials. Prototype cemeteries were constructed in France, at Le Treport, Forceville and Louvencourt. All three were completed in 1920, with the one at Forceville being considered the most successful; with uniform headstones, Blomfield's Cross of Sacrifice and Lutyen's Stone of Remembrance, it became the model for all future ones.

Sai Wan War Cemetary 1

Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong

At the end of 1919, the commission had spent £7,500, and this figure rose to £250,000 in 1920 as construction of cemeteries and memorials increased. 4,000 headstones a week were being sent to France in 1923. In 1927, when the majority of construction had been completed, over 500 cemeteries had been built, with 400,000 headstones and 1000 Crosses of Sacrifice.

In many cases small cemeteries were closed and the graves concentrated in larger ones, and further enlarged as battlefields were searched for bodies. As early as 1916, Ware had approached the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for advice on floriculture for the cemetries. The building programme was finally completed in 1938, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

From the start of the Second World War in 1939, the CWGC had a graves registration unit. With the increased number of civilian casualties compared with the First World War, Winston Churchill agreed to Ware's proposal that the CWGC also maintain a record of Commonwealth civilian war deaths. This book, containing the names of nearly 67,000 men, women and children, has been kept in Westminster Abbey since 1956. When the Allies liberated Northern Europe, most of the First World War cemeteries were found to be largely undamaged and the floriculture had nearly reached pre-war standards within three years.

The Second World War had produced over 600,000 Empire and Commonwealth deaths. In 1949, the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery was the first to be completed, and, eventually, over 350,000 headstones were erected. However, the wider scale of the war, coupled with manpower shortages and unrest in some countries, meant that construction of Second World War cemeteries was not complete until the 1960s. By this time, the CWGC had constructed 559 new cemeteries and 36 memorials.



The First World War Ypres Reservoir cemetery, Belgium.

The CWGC's work is funded predominantly by grants from the governments of the six member states. In the fiscal year 2004/05, these grants amounted to £38.9m.[10] The contribution from each country is proportionate to the number of graves maintained, as follows:

Country Value of grants
(£ m)
 % of total
United Kingdom
<center> 78.4
Canada <center> 3.9 <center> 10.1
Australia <center> 2.4 <center> 6.1
New Zealand <center> 0.8 <center> 2.1
South Africa <center> 0.8 <center> 2.1
India <center> 0.5 <center> 1.2
Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission[10]


Commonwealth graf genes belgium

Commonwealth grave in Genes, Belgium

CWGC cemeteries are generally respected as humanitarian, non-political sites, and instances of vandalism and desecration appear to be rare; when they do occur they tend to make news in Commonwealth countries. For instance, on May 9, 2004 33 headstones were demolished in the Gaza cemetery, which contains 3691 graves,[11] allegedly in retaliation for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.[12]

Accusations of vandalism of Imperial war graves were levelled at Nazi Germany after their victory in the Battle of France. On June 2, 1940, Adolf Hitler visited the Vimy Memorial to show that it had not been vandalised or destroyed by German troops.[13]

Vandals defaced the central memorial of the Etaples War Cemetery in northern France with anti-British and anti-American graffiti on March 20, 2003 immediately after the beginning of the Iraq War.[14]


  1. ^ Hannan, Rachael. "Their Glory Shan't Be Blotted Out". Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  2. ^ "Architecture". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  3. ^ Batten Sonia. "Forgetting the Great War". 
  4. ^ "Haidar Pasha Cemetery" (PDF). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-08-15. 
  5. ^ "The Gallipoli Campaign, 1915" (PDF). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Horticulture". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  7. ^ "Major General Sir Fabian Ware". Ministry of Defence Veterans Agency. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  8. ^ "Records". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  9. ^ "A History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission" (PDF). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  10. ^ a b "The Commission Finances" (PDF). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-08-15. 
  11. ^ "Gaza War Cemetery". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  12. ^ Lynfield, Ben (11 May 2004). "Palestinians vandalise UK war graves". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  13. ^ "Vimy War Memorial Gallery". Harry Palmer. Retrieved 2006-10-17. 
  14. ^ "French Plea as cemetery defaced". BBC. 1 April 2003. Retrieved 2007-10-30. 

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This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.

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