“The country needs dignity and refined taste”: 100 years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been celebrating the centenary of its founding since May 21st, with events across the Commonwealth countries, including one at the Canadian War Museum this past week. One of the most striking sites when travelling in northern France are the CWGC managed cemeteries; they are quiet places, with rows of white headstones, and perfectly maintained grass walkways. 

Image: [Official Grave Registration] G[unner] A[rthur] Grisdale, Canadian Field Artillery, [1916-1918]. Collectino CCGW/CCGG. 

The cemeteries conceal not only the immense human cost of the First World War, but also the years of painstaking recording, administration, and physical labour that have resulted in these beautiful places of remembrance. The CWGC, or as it was original known, the Imperial War Graves Commission, was originally the project of one man. Fabian Arthur Goulstone Ware, to give him his full name, began the war as commander of a Mobile Ambulance Unit, administrated by the Red Cross.

Ware and his MU were in France for the first days of the war, when the British, French, and German armies raced to halt each other in a war of movement that lasted until the winter of 1914-15. While transporting hundreds of wounded men, Ware also noted how difficult it was to ensure that the dead were identified and buried. At this time, the British military did not have a formal process for registering graves, and in previous wars like the Crimean War, the luxury of being identified was usually reserved for officers. The families of rank and file soldiers would likely never know where their loved one was buried.

Initially, Ware sought and received permission to have the staff of the MU find and record the locations of British graves wherever they could, but by 1915 it was clear that there needed to be a more official effort to ensure that the graves of Empire war dead were not lost. Ware began to lobby the Army for an official body to manage the work of the MU, which had by this time become overwhelming, and the Graves Registration Commission was formed, with Ware at its head.

Canadian war dead, who were considered part of the British Army, came under GRC administration as well. This meant that the British decision not to repatriate the dead after the war, but rather to bury them in France, affected families of Canadian soldiers as well. The decision not ship dead soldiers home was the result of several ideological and economic circumstances; Ware himself believed that the war was an equaliser, and as such, soldiers ceased to be divided by class when alive, and shouldn’t be divided when dead.

The British government also realised the immense cost of a repatriation project, and the damage to civilian morale if citizens had to be faced with the remains of hundreds of thousands of young men coming back to Britain. In 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded to conceive of, design, and manage British war cemeteries in France.

In addition to deciding how the cemeteries would look, a long process for another blog post, the IWGC’s initial work was the exhumation of the thousands of bodies buried in temporary graves on the front, and the identification of those unknown. Teams worked for years in the 1920s performing exhumation, record keeping, and building cemeteries to hold the Imperial war dead, and later to build the 12 monuments in France and Belgium to the missing.

For Canadian families, an official Graves Registration Commission photograph and grave listing like the one shown above was often the only vestige they had of their dead loved one. Going to Europe was expensive, and for most families it was completely out of reach; however, the battlefields in France saw significant numbers of war tourists in the years after Armistice, many of whom came to visit the graves of their family members. One of the optional tour extensions during the Vimy Pilgrimage in 1936 were visits to cemeteries. The CWGC continues to oversee First and Second World War graves around the world today; they are still exhuming and identifying casualties from the First World War.

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2 thoughts on ““The country needs dignity and refined taste”: 100 years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

  1. I recently returned from a WW1 battlefields tour in France and Belgium. Some of us who sought out the graves of our great uncles in CWGC cemeteries realized that we were likely the first family members to visit. A moving experience, even after 100 years.

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