By Ian Langworthy, Historian and Battlefield Guide.
Looking back at last November’s edition of What’s the Buzz? we did touch on the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and it’s now time to look more closely at the work of that organisation. As many of you will have seen driving through northern France and Belgium, there are cemeteries everywhere, large and small from both World War 1 and World War 2, all very distinctive in their layout and look and often in the middle of nowhere. How did they come to be there? Why do they all look the same?
It’s questionable what would have happened without the work and dedication of one man, Fabian Ware. Ware was attached to the Red Cross at the start of World War 1 (WW1) and realised very quickly, as the British Army retreated through Belgium and France in the autumn of 1914, that records needed to be kept of who had died and where so that they could be properly commemorated and, if possible, buried in a marked grave. There was to be no question of what happened after the Battle of Waterloo which so enraged W.M. Thackeray of bodies “being shovelled into a pit… and so forgotten”
Support for this work was soon gathered and the Graves Registration Committee was formed with Ware at its head. By this time the front line in western Europe had become largely static (as was the case in other theatres of war, such as Gallipoli) so in theory, the work of recording deaths and burials was easier but with such a large area of no man’s land containing many dead, and the fact that many temporary cemeteries were destroyed or damaged by subsequent shelling, there was still much to do.
Even whilst the war continued, planning was underway as to the type, size and design of permanent cemeteries to be built after the cessation of hostilities and the construction of memorials to the dead and the missing. The Imperial War Graves Commission, as the committee became, included many eminent figures including Ware and Rudyard Kipling (whose own son Jack had been killed in France in 1915). It set about deciding on some governing principles to guide their work. First and foremost, there was to be equal treatment of the war dead – “Equality in Death”. So there would be no difference in the treatment of the graves or commemoration of officers and non-commissioned ranks (the ordinary soldier). This led to what was probably the most controversial proposal and that was that there would be no repatriation of bodies. It was realised that in practice this would not be possible for the ordinary family so the rule would apply to all. Although there was initial opposition to this, the principle was accepted and it is worth noting that Queen Victorias’ grandson, Prince Maurice, a professional soldier killed in 1914 remains buried near his men in Ypres Town cemetery.
It was decided that the basic design of the cemeteries would be the same regardless of size. Surrounded by a low red brick wall capped by white stone, each cemetery would contain the cross of sacrifice and larger sites would contain the stone of remembrance with words carved on it chosen by Rudyard Kipling “their name liveth for evermore”. The wooden cross originally placed to mark a grave would be replaced by a white limestone headstone of the same size, engraved in the same way, with the name rank and number of the dead man or woman (where known), their regimental badge, a cross (unless the family objected) or star of David and an inscription supplied by the family (initially at a cost but subsequently waived).
As far as possible, bodies were buried close to where they died but with so many individual graves and many small cemeteries dotted throughout the countryside, many were brought into large concentration cemeteries. Graves are laid out in line, intended to represent a battalion on parade divided into smaller groups (sections and platoons) as in the army. The cemeteries were to be planted (where possible) with plants and flowers to be found in an English country garden, a challenge in cemeteries in the middle east and other far-flung parts of the (now) Commonwealth and experts from Kew were brought in to advise.
And what about the missing? It was proposed that a headstone should be erected for each missing serviceperson, this idea was rejected as the sheer number of missing made this impracticable. It was decided that they would be commemorated on large memorials that were to be built in the main battle areas. On the western front, these were at Thiepval on the Somme and the Menin Gate at Ypres. It was discovered that the Menin Gate, designed to take some 60,000 names, would not be enough. So at the largest CWGC cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot near Ypres, a wall was built to take another 35,000. At Thiepval, the memorial contains over 72,000 names and there are other memorials at Ploegsteert in Belgium and elsewhere. The number of dedicated memorials proposed became so large that they had to be reduced with names being allocated to memorial walls at existing cemeteries; the numbers were so large.
You may think that I have concentrated here on WW1 and the western front and that is because this is where it all started. The work of the CWGC is, however, worldwide and covers the battles of both world wars and conflicts since. The ethos and guiding principles remain unchanged and the work of maintenance and repair is unending. The Commission cares for more than 23,000 sites in 150 countries throughout the world, containing more than 1,130,000 graves and memorials to over 700,000 missing. In this short article, it is not possible to do justice to the work of Fabian Ware and his colleagues and their successors but the cemeteries and memorials are a testament to what they do and a fitting tribute to the sacrifice of those who died.
If anyone has questions about this article or WW1 or WW2 please contact me. My details can be found in the ‘Find a Guide ’section on the Guild of Battlefield Guides website.