Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Logo of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Abbreviation CWGC
Formation 21 May 1917
Legal status Commission
Purpose/focus To pay tribute to the personnel of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. Also maintains a roll of honour for civilians killed in the Second World War
Headquarters Maidenhead, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Region served Worldwide (150 countries)
President Prince Edward, Duke of Kent
Key people Alan Pateman-Jones
(Director General)
Timothy Reeves
(Deputy Director General)
Budget £43,027,498 (2008)

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is an intergovernmental organisation of six independent member states whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves, and places of commemoration, of Commonwealth of Nations military service members who died in the two World Wars.[1] The Commission is also responsible for commemorating Commonwealth civilians who died as a result of enemy action during the Second World War.[1] The Commission was founded by Fabian Ware and constituted through Royal Charter in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission.[1] The Imperial War Graves Commission amended its name to its present name in 1960.[2]

The Commission, as part of its mandate, is responsible for commemorating all Commonwealth war dead individually and equally. To this effect, the war dead are commemorated by name on either a headstone, at an identified site of a burial, or on a memorial. War dead are commemorated in a uniform and equal fashion, irrespective of military or civil rank, race or creed.

The Commission is currently responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.69 million deceased Commonwealth military service members in 150 countries.[3] Since its inception, the Commission has constructed approximately 2,500 war cemeteries and numerous memorials.[1] The Commission is currently responsible for the care of war dead at over 23,000 separate burial sites and the maintenance of more than 200 memorials worldwide.[2] In addition to commemorating Commonwealth military service members, the Commission maintains, under arrangement with applicable governments, over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves.[1][3] The Commission operates through the continued financial support of the member states: United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. The current President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.



First World War

Canadian war graves near Ypres, Belgium

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Fabian Ware, a director of the Rio Tinto Company, found that at 45 he was too old to join the British Army.[4] He used the influence of Rio Tinto chairman, Viscount Milner, to become the commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross. He arrived in France in September 1914 and whilst there was struck by the lack of any official mechanism for marking the graves of those who had been killed and felt compelled to create the organisation within the Red Cross for this purpose. In 1915, his work was given official recognition by the Imperial War Office and the unit was transferred to the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.[5] By October 1915, the new Graves Registration Commission had over 31,000 graves registered and 50,000 by May 1916.[6]

As reports of the grave registration work became public, the commission began to receive letters of enquiry and requests for photographs of graves from relatives of deceased soldiers.[7] In March 1915, the commission, with the support of the Red Cross, began to dispatch photographic prints and useful locational information in answer to the requests.[7] The Graves Registration Commission became the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries in the spring of 1916 in recognition of the fact that the scope of work began to extend beyond simple grave registration and began to include responding to enquiries from relatives of those killed.[7] The directorate's work was also extended beyond the Western Front and into other theatres of war, with units deployed in Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.[7]

Formal establishment

Carving of headstones by hand would take a week

As the war continued, Ware and others became concerned about the fate of the graves in the post-war period. Upon the suggestion by the British Army, the National Committee for the Care of Soldiers Graves was appointed by the British government in January 1916, with Edward, Prince of Wales agreeing to serve as president.[8] The National Committee for the Care of Soldiers’ Graves was created with the intention of taking over the work of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries after the war.[9] The government felt that it was more appropriate to entrust the work to a specially appointed body rather than to any existing government department.[9] By early 1917 a number of members of the committee believed a formal imperial organisation would be needed to care for the graves. With the help of Edward, Prince of Wales, Ware submitted a memorandum to the Imperial War Conference in 1917 suggesting that an imperial organisation be constituted under Royal Charter.[9][10] The suggestion was accepted and on 21 May 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter, with Edward, Prince of Wales serving as president, Secretary of State for War Lord Derby as chairman and Ware as vice-chairman.[1][10]

The Commission's undertakings began in earnest at the end of the First World War. Once land for cemeteries and memorials had been guaranteed, the enormous task of recording the details of the dead could begin. By 1918, some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties were registered as having no known grave. A committee under 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 report were that bodies should not be repatriated and that uniform memorials should be used to avoid class distinctions. Beyond the logistical nightmare of returning home so many corpses, it was felt that repatriation would conflict with the feeling of brotherhood that had developed between all serving ranks. Both of these issues generated considerable public discussion, which eventually led to a heated debate in Parliament on 4 May 1920.[11] The matter was eventually settled with Kenyon's proposal being accepted.

First cemeteries

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. Following the principals outlined in the Frederic Kenyon report, the Commission built three experimental cemeteries at Le Treport, Forceville and Louvencourt. Of these, the one located at Forceville was agreed to be the most successful. Having consulted with garden designer Gertrude Jekyl, the architects created a walled cemetery with uniform headstones in a garden setting, augmented by Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice and Lutyens’ Stone of Remembrance.[1] After some adjustments, Forceville became the template for the Commission’s building program.

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 1,000 Crosses of Sacrifice. In many cases small cemeteries were closed and the graves concentrated in larger ones. The cemetery building and grave concentration programme was completed in 1938, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Architects and sculptors

As well as the main Principal Architects for France and Belgium (Baker, Blomfield and Lutyens), there were Principal Architects appointed for other regions as well. Sir Robert Lorimer was Principal Architect for Italy, Macedonia and Egypt, while Sir John James Burnet was Principal Architect for Palestine and Gallipoli, assisted by Thomas Smith Tait. The Principal Architect for Mesopotamia was Edward Prioleau Warren. In 1943 Sir Edward Maufe was appointed as a chief designer and worked extensively for the commission for 25 years. He remained there as the principal architect and then chief architect and artistic advisor until 1969.

As well as these senior architects, there was a team of Assistant Architects who were actually responsible for many of the cemetery and memorial designs. These architects were younger, and many of them had served in the war. The Assistant Architects were: George Esselmont Gordon Leith, Wilfred Clement von Berg, Charles Henry Holden (who in 1920 became a Principal Architect), William Harrison Cowlishaw, William Bryce Binnie, George Hartley Goldsmith, Frank Higginson, Arthur James Scott Hutton, Noel Ackroyd Rew, and John Reginald Truelove.[12] Other architects that worked for the Commission, or won competitions for the Commission memorials, included Harold Chalton Bradshaw, Sawley Nicol, Verner Owen Rees, Gordon H. Holt, and Henry Philip Cart de Lafontaine.[13][14].

Sculptors that worked on the memorials and cemeteries after World War I included Eric Henri Kennington, Charles Thomas Wheeler, William Reid Dick, Gilbert Ledward, Ernest Gillick, Basil Gotto, Charles Sargeant Jagger, Alfred Turner, and Laurence A. Turner.

Second World War

The first Second World War cemetery, Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery

From the start of the Second World War in 1939, the Commission 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 Commission 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 war began turning toward the Allies favour, the Commission was able to begin restoring its 1914-1918 cemeteries and memorials to their pre-war standard. So too, it began the task of commemorating the 600,000 Commonwealth casualties from the Second World War. In 1949, the commission completed Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, the first of 559 new cemeteries and 36 new memorials. Eventually, over 350,000 new headstones were erected. The wider scale of the Second World War, coupled with manpower shortages and unrest in some countries, meant that the construction programme was not completed until the 1960s.

Burial sites and memorials

The Commission is currently responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.69 million deceased Commonwealth military service members in 150 countries and approximately 67,000 civilians who died as a result of enemy action during the Second World War.[1][3] Commonwealth military service members are commemorated by name on either a headstone, at an identified site of a burial, or on a memorial. As a result, the Commission is currently responsible for the care of war dead at over 23,000 separate burial sites and maintenance of more than 200 memorials worldwide.[2] The vast majority of burial sites are pre-existing communal cemeteries located in the United Kingdom, however the Commission has itself constructed approximately 2,500 war cemeteries worldwide.[1][15] The Commission has also constructed or commissioned memorials to commemorate the dead who have no known grave; the largest of these is the Thiepval Memorial.

The Commission only commemorates those who have died during the designated war years, while in Commonwealth military service or of causes attributable to service. The applicable periods of consideration are 4 August 1914 to 31 August 1921 for the First World War and 3 September 1939 to 31 December 1947 for Second World War.[3] Civilians who died as a result of enemy action during the Second World War are commemorated differently than those that died as a result of military service. They are commemorated by name through the Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour located in St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.[3] In addition to its mandated duties, the Commission maintains, under arrangement with applicable governments, over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves.[1][3]

Cemetery design


Structural design has always played an important part in the Commission’s cemeteries. A typical cemetery is surrounded by a masonry wall with an entrance through wrought iron gates. In larger sites a stainless steel notice gives details of the respective military campaign. In all but the smallest cemeteries, a bronze register box is present containing an inventory of the burials and a plan of the plots and rows. Typically, cemeteries of more than 40 graves have a Cross of Sacrifice designed by architect Reginald Blomfield. A simple cross embedded with a bronze broadsword and mounted on an octagonal base to represent the faith of the majority of commemorations. Those with more than 1000 burials typically have a Stone of Remembrance, designed by Edwin Lutyens, to commemorate those of all faiths and none respectively. The geometry of the structure was based on studies of the Parthenon and steers purposefully clear of shapes associated with any particular religion.

The Stone of Remembrance, a feature of larger cemeteries

Individual graves are arranged, where possible, in straight rows and marked by uniform headstones, the vast majority of which are made of Portland stone. Unlike French, German, or American graves, the headstones are rectangles with rounded tops. Most headstones are inscribed with a cross, except for those deceased known to be atheist or non-Christian. Differentiated only by their inscriptions: the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty is inscribed above an appropriate religious symbol and a more personal dedication chosen by relatives. In the case of burials of Victoria Cross recipients, the regimental badge is replaced by the Victoria Cross emblem. Many gravestones are for unidentified casualties; they consequently bear only what could be discovered from the body.

In places prone to extreme weather or earthquakes, such as Thailand and Turkey, stone-faced pedestal markers are used instead of the normal headstones and the freestanding Cross of Sacrifice is replaced with one built into a wall. These measures are intended to prevent masonry being damaged during earthquakes or sinking into sodden ground.[16] In Struma Military Cemetery, in Greece, to avoid risk of earthquake damage, small headstones are laid flat on the ground.[17] The smaller size of the markers mean that they lack unit insignia.[16][18]


Roses around headstones in Menin Road South Military Cemetery, Belgium

Commission cemeteries are distinctive in treating floriculture as an integral part of the cemetery design. Originally, the horticultural concept was to create an environment where visitors could experience a sense of peace in a setting, in contrast to traditionally bleak graveyards.[19] Recommendations given by the Assistant Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew enabled the Commission to develop cemetery layouts and architectural structures that took into account the placement of suitable plant life. Combining structural and horticultural elements was not unfamiliar to the Commission’s architects. Sir Edwin Lutyens furthered his long-standing working relationship with horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll, whose devotion to traditional cottage garden plants and roses greatly influenced the appearance of the cemeteries.[19] Where possible, indigenous plants were utilised to enhance sentimental associations with the gardens of home.[19]

Variety in texture, height and timing of floral display were equally important horticultural considerations. The beds around each headstone is planted with a mixture of floribunda roses and herbaceous perennials. Low-growing plants are chosen for areas immediately in front of headstones, ensuring that inscriptions are not obscured and preventing soil from splashing back during rain. In cemeteries where there are pedestal grave markers, dwarf varieties of plants are used instead.[19]

The absence of any form of paving between the headstone rows contributes to the simplicity of the cemetery designs. Lawn paths add to the garden ambiance, and are irrigated during the dry season in countries where there is insufficient rain. Where irrigation is inappropriate or impractical, dry landscaping is an ecological alternative favoured by the Commission’s horticulturists, as is the case in Iraq. Drier areas require a different approach not only for lawns, but also to plants and styles of planting. Similarly, there are separate horticultural considerations in tropical climates. When many cemeteries are concentrated within a limited area, like along the Western Front or Gallipoli peninsula, mobile teams of gardeners operate from a local base. Elsewhere, larger cemeteries have their own dedicated staff while small cemeteries are usually tended by a single gardener working part time.


Headquarters of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, UK

The CWGC's work is funded predominantly by grants from the governments of the six member states. In the fiscal year 2007/08, these grants amounted to £43m.[20] The contribution from each country is proportionate to the number of graves maintained, as follows:

Country Value of grants
(£ m)
 % of total
United Kingdom
New Zealand
South Africa
Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission[20]


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.

Accusations of vandalism of Imperial war graves were levelled at Nazi Germany after their victory in the Battle of France. On 2 June 1940, Adolf Hitler visited the Vimy Memorial to show that it had not been vandalised or destroyed by German troops.[21]

Vandals defaced the central memorial of the Etaples Military Cemetery in northern France with anti-British and anti-American graffiti on 20 March 2003 immediately after the beginning of the Iraq War. The many war graves that the Commission looked after in Iraq were left to fall into disrepair after Saddam Hussein banned the Commission from visiting the graveyards after the first Gulf War.[22] On 9 May 2004 thirty-three headstones were demolished in the Gaza cemetery, which contains 3,691 graves,[23] allegedly in retaliation for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.[24]

In November 2008, nineteen headstones at the Wagga Wagga War Cemetery were desecrated by vandals. On 1 April 2009 the nineteen headstones were restored at a cost of AU$7500 with A$10,000 reward on offer for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for the attack.[25]

In late March 2009, vandals desecrated eight headstones at the Albury War Cemetery, in Albury, New South Wales, which were found by a member of the Office of Australian War Graves. Replacement headstones will cost A$2000 each and take up to eight weeks to replace.[26]

Current projects

A project is underway to photograph the graves of and memorials to all service personnel from 1914 to the present day and make the images available to the public. The work is being carried out by The War Graves Photographic Project[1] in conjunction with the CWGC. The project has thus far recorded 1,000,000 photographs for posterity.[27]

Since an initial archaeological investigation in 2008, the Commission has been working with the British and Australian authorities to plan the recovery of between 250 and 400 casualties from previously unidentified mass graves resulting from the Battle of Fromelles. Recovery operations began in May 2009, and it is expected that by July 2010 all remains will have been reburied in individual graves in the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery close by (the first new CWGC cemetery for more than fifty years).[28][29]

British graves and memorials in South Africa from the Second Boer War have been the responsibility of the CWGC since 2005, and the project involving the renovation of graves of over 24,000 casualties at 223 sites is expected to be completed in 2011.[30]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Peaslee p. 300
  2. ^ a b c Gibson & Ward p. 63
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Facts and figures". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2009-12-15. 
  4. ^ "Major General Sir Fabian Ware". Ministry of Defence Veterans Agency. Retrieved 2008-05-26. 
  5. ^ "Major General Sir Fabian Ware". Ministry of Defence Veterans Agency. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  6. ^ "Records". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  7. ^ a b c d Summers p. 15
  8. ^ Summers pp. 15-16
  9. ^ a b c "WO 32/9433 - Text of Memorandum put before the Imperial War Conference in April 1917", The Catalogue, The National Archives. Retrieved on 15 December 2009.
  10. ^ a b Summers p. 16
  11. ^ Imperial War Graves Commission HC Deb 04 May 1920 vol 128 cc1929-72, Hansard, Parliament of the United Kingdom, 4 May 1920. Retrieved on 15 December 2009
  12. ^ The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Gavin Stamp, 2007), pages 90-91
  13. ^ Silent Cities (Gavin Stamp, 1977)
  14. ^ Holt is mentioned in connection with the Soissons Memorial: SOISSONS MEMORIAL, CWGC website, accessed 20/02/2011
  15. ^ "Annual Report 2007-2008 Finances, Statistics, Service" (PDF). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. pp. 48–52.,%20Statistics%20and%20Service.pdf. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  16. ^ a b "Features of Commonwealth War Cemeteries" (Word document). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  17. ^ "Charles Usher Kilner". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  18. ^ "Haidar Pasha Cemetery" (PDF). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  19. ^ a b c d "Horticulture". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  20. ^ a b "The Commission Finances" (PDF). Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-08-15. 
  21. ^ "Vimy War Memorial Gallery". Harry Palmer. Retrieved 2006-10-17. 
  22. ^ "French Plea as cemetery defaced". BBC. 2003-04-01. Retrieved 2007-10-30. 
  23. ^ "Gaza War Cemetery". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  24. ^ Lynfield, Ben (2004-05-11). "Palestinians vandalise UK war graves". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2006-09-15. 
  25. ^ Holliday, Rebekah (2009-04-02). "Vandals show ‘no respect’". The Daily Advertiser. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  26. ^ Tucker, Breanna (2009-04-01). "Despicable ... Albury war graves smashed". Albury, New South Wales: The Border Mail. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  27. ^ "About The War Graves Photographic Project". Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  28. ^ "Recovery of Fromelles WWI dead begins". Ministry of Defence. 6 May 2009. Retrieved 8 May 2009. 
  29. ^ "Remembering Fromelles—Homepage". CWGC. 
  30. ^ CWGC Newsletter, January 2011


  • Gibson, T. A. Edwin; Ward, G. Kingsley (1989). Courage Remembered: The Story Behind the Construction and Maintenance of the Commonwealth's Military Cemeteries and Memorials of the Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45. London: Stationery Office Books. ISBN 0117726087. 
  • Peaslee, Amos Jenkins (1974). International Governmental Organizations. 2 (3rd ed.). London: Martinus Nijhoff. ISBN 9024716012. 
  • Summers, Julie (2007). Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. London: Merrell. ISBN 1858943744. 

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