Commonwealth War Graves Commission

During the early weeks of the war in 1914 the dead were buried by their comrades, or by local inhabitants, in communal cemeteries, and the burial returns were made by chaplains or by serving officers. In September, a British Red Cross unit headed by Fabian Ware went to France and visited Bethune cemetery with Dr. Stewart, a Red Cross medical assessor. Seeing a number of British graves with their plain wooden crosses, Dr. Stewart suggested that although they were adequately marked, there appeared to be no evidence that they had been recorded or registered, and that the unit should undertake the work. The unit was officially appointed by Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief in February 1915 and given the title of graves Registration Commission attached to the Adjutant General’s department.

The task of the Commission was the systematic marking and registration of all graves in France and Belgium, and the British zone of warfare was divided into seven areas in which all known graves were located with an appropriate religious marker, and photographs taken of every grave.

In December 1915, the French Government made a free gift of land for cemeteries to Britain and the Dominions, in perpetuity, and the British would be responsible for their maintenance. At the same time the British Government established a National Committee for the Care of Soldiers’ Graves with the Prince of Wales as its President.

It had been the practice up to 1916 to bury the dead where they fell or in scattered graves in the rear. Now it became normal for trenches to be pre-dug before battles in preparation for the dead. Not always good for morale, it nevertheless eased the task of identification.

In May 1917 the Imperial Graves Commission was created by Royal Charter and its duties were, and still are, to mark and maintain the graves of all members of the Services of the Empire who died during the War, called by Sir John French ‘the silent army.’ They were to construct cemeteries and memorials, and all men received the same tribute in the form of a white headstone, rectangular with rounded tops, each 2ft 6ins high, 1ft 3ins broad, bearing, when known, the regimental badge, name, rank, number, date of birth and death, religious emblem and a personal inscription chosen by the family. The stones usually were laid out in straight lines, giving the appearance of a battalion on parade. Gardeners from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew planted a mixture of floribunda roses and herbaceous perennials in front of each line, and added flowering shrubs and shaped conifers to border avenues. For bodies that could not be identified, the headstone bears the simple words, chosen by Rudyard Kipling, ‘Known unto God.’

The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission took over from the Empire War Office in 1921. Each cemetery has a character of its own although a number of features, particularly the Cross of Sacrifice set upon an octagonal base and bearing a crusaders sword of bronze, are common to all. The larger cemeteries also have a Stone of Remembrance, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens with the words ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore,’ chosen by Rudyard Kipling from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Almost every cemetery has a small bronze door let into a wall behind which is a copy of the cemetery or memorial register.

Remains of bodies are still being found and interred in the War Cemeteries, and there are still over 500,000 missing from the Western Front.