How the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was formed

Before World War I, no Commonwealth country had suffered losses severe enough to warrant an official grave marking/recording organization; casualties were light enough for comrades and medics to bury the dead. However, with the invention of powerful defensive weapons like automatic machine guns and accurate artillery, conflicts became wars of attrition. Hundreds of thousands of men died in single battles (the Battle of the Somme left over 1 million men dead, with over 58,000 British casualties in just the first day). Clearly, if all these soldiers were to be honoured in the way they deserved, a concerted and directed effort had to be made.

Sir Fabian A. G. Ware (1869-1949) was too old to join the British Army in August 1914, but was able to serve his country by commanding a Red Cross Unit. He arrived in France in September 1914 to find no organized attempt whatsoever to record and mark soldiers' graves. Ware realized the importance of implementing a grave registration system. Already requests for photographs or information about soldiers' graves were flooding in from England, plus the morale of the troops would be boosted if they saw their dead friends being treated with respect.

Initially, Ware just encouraged his men to mark and systematically record any grave they came across, but he soon realized that a much larger scale operation was required. He talked to Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart, a Red Cross Medical Assessor, who realized the significance of Ware's efforts. As a result of Stewart's influential recommendations, the Graves Registration Commission was formed in 1915, which, although it now received more funding, was still insufficient to deal with the thousands of casualties.

Despite the difficulties Ware's men faced, by 1917, 12,000 photographs of graves had been sent to relatives in Britain, and many more had been marked and catalogued. During these two years, Ware lobbied tirelessly for the creation of an organization adequate to the task of dealing with thousands of new graves every day. Later in 1917, he managed to get the backing of the Prince of Wales, and important ally in his crusade. When Ware submitted a memo detailing his ideas to the Imperial War Conference of 1917, it was unanimously approved, and on 21 May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter.

Planning the cemeteries

The Commission enlisted the services of three of the most eminent architects of the century: Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield. These architects, mediated by Sir Frederic Kenyon, debated for months, and in November 1918 submitted a report which would define the principles and maxims that the Imperial and Commonwealth War Graves Commission would adhere to for decades.

At the heart of the report lay the idea that all the graves should be treated equally, regardless to race, creed or rank. In the trenches, a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood had grown between the soldiers, and this report planned to preserve this closeness in death by burying general next to private, black next to white. Unfortunately, this enlightened approach met enormous resistance with the British public. Some families demanded that their sons be buried with personal headstones, or in locations they specified. In fact, there was such a furore over the issue that there was a debate in the House of Commons on 4 May 1920. An emotive closing speech by Chairman Winston Churchill sealed the matter - the architects' plans for fellowship in death would go ahead.

Putting plans into practice

In order to decide the style and form later cemeteries would take, three experimental cemeteries were built, of which the most successful was Forceville in France. This cemetery exhibited all the trademarks of Commonwealth cemeteries today: uniform white headstones, the Cross of Sacrifice (designed by Blomfield) and the Stone of Remembrance (designed by Lutyens). The purpose of the Cross of Sacrifice was to represent the faith of the majority, while the Stone of Remembrance was there to represent those with no faith.

Another feature of World War I was that due to the terrible destructive power of artillery, only half of the dead soldiers had any physical remains left to bury. Some sort of memorial would have to be built to commemorate the missing, too. In the end, memorials in many different shapes and sizes were built all over France and Belgium. The largest, the Thiepval Memorial in France, is over 45m in height and is covered with the names of over 72,000 missing men.

Despite the enormous manpower being poured into the Commission's efforts, this was going to be a long and arduous task. In 1923, over 4,000 headstones were being shipped to France every week, but completion of the cemeteries was still a long way off. Another problem was the enormous number of plants the cemeteries required to soften the edges and decorate graves. The Commission started building its own nurseries to produce a regular supply of flowers, trees and shrubs, but the construction of even the nurseries wasn't complete by 1938, let alone the construction of the cemeteries!

World War II

Unfortunately, the Commission was well practiced in how to catalogue war dead by now, and as hostilities seemed more and more likely, areas were set aside for cemeteries and organized grave recognition units in preparation for the carnage that was to follow.

This new war brought new challenges. With customary insight, Ware realized that the enormous importance of air power in modern warfare meant that civilian casualties would invariably occur. He planned for this by organizing a "Roll of Honour" to record all non-military deaths. By VE Day, there were 66,000 names on the list. The "Roll of Honour" is now in St. George's chapel, Westminster Abbey, London. A new page is turned every day.

As the Nazi forces were pushed back towards the end of the war, the Commission was able to tend to the existing cemeteries for the first time in 6 or 7 years. Luckily, there wasn't much serious structural damage, but horticultural efforts had to effectively be restarted.

World War II left 600,000 Commonwealth soldiers dead, compared with 1,100,000 from World War I. Another new problem was that the later conflict had truly been a global conflict, with fronts on three continents. The Commission had to organize War Graves Agreements with many countries, and eventually built 559 new cemeteries and 36 new memorials.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Today

Thankfully, there have not been any major conflicts for Commonwealth countries since 1945. The one major change the Commission has seen is the change from the Imperial War Graves Commission to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960. With the call for self determination on the increase in many countries, it was thought appropriate to reflect the end of the British Empire. The Commission has also adopted more advanced techniques to maintain its cemeteries, with automatic irrigation systems saving water while keeping earth saturation at the necessary level. In 1995, all the Commission's records were transferred onto a computer database, which can now be accessed at

Factual sources:
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission -

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