The Commonwealth War Graves Commission care for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations, in 154 countries. In Belgium and Northern France, where many of our World War One battlefield tours take place, there are 959 CWGC cemeteries and memorials. Each one is meticulously maintained by the gardeners of the CWGC and are all fine resting places for our honoured dead. To visit them all would probably take a thousand battlefield tours or more.
But, how did it all begin?
The collection and identification of bodies prior to the First World War was a haphazard affair with many men buried in mass graves. This procedure could well have continued if it had not been for the efforts of one man, Fabian Ware.
Fabian Ware was born at Clifton, Bristol on 17 June 1869. He attended the Universities of London and Paris. At the latter he obtained a Bachelier-es-Science in 1894. He then went on to spend the next ten years as an assistant master at several secondary schools, and as an occasional examiner for the Civil Service Commission and Inspector of Schools for the Board of Education.
He began writing articles in 1899 for the Morning Post. He became the representative of the Education Committee of the Royal British Commission at the Exposition Universelle (1900) and then obtained a job as Assistant Director of Education in the Transvaal, where after two years was promoted to Acting Director of Education for the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony. Soon afterwards he was made Director of Education on the Transvaal Legislative Council under Viscount Milner. In 1905 he returned to Britain and was appointed editor of the Morning Post, where he remained until 1911 when he became a director of Rio Tinto Limited.
When the First World War came along in 1914, Ware tried to join the British Army but was rejected as he was too old. With the assistance of Lord Milner, he obtained command of a mobile ambulance unit provided by the British Red Cross Society.
While in command of this unit, Ware was struck by the absence of any official body that collated details and burial places of the dead. Ware set about changing this and founded an organisation to carry out this task. The War Office kept a close eye on this new unit, such as it was and began to recognise Fabian Ware’s work. In 1915 Ware and his unit were transferred from the British Red Cross to the Army and the new Graves Registration Commission was founded. By October 1915 31,000 graves had been registered and by May 1916 the total rose to 50,000.
It was soon recognised that this organisation needed to represent the ‘imperial’ nature of the war effort with so many countries of the British Empire making a contribution. In 1917 therefore the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917.
Some of the principal architects of the day began work on the design and construction of the cemeteries and memorials, embodying the aims of Imperial War Graves Commission. Many battlefield tour travellers admire the architectural designs of Bloomfield, Lutyens and Baker that are apparent at the entrances to these cemeteries.
However, arguments arose over the cost, type and size of these cemeteries and memorials and there were even greater difficulties to be conquered. There was major disagreement over the repatriation of remains and the design of private memorials or the type of grave markers to be used. After prolonged discussion it was decided that there would no repatriation of bodies due to the cost involved, especially for those that did not have the necessary financial means. It was also concluded that the grave markers would be of a non denominational type reflecting the religious beliefs of those many nationalities involved.
At the end of 1919 the Commission had spent £7,500, twelve months later that figure had risen to £250,000. In France and Belgium over 160 kilometres of cemetery walls had been erected using over 280,000 cubic meters of stone. In 1923 over 4,000 headstones a week were being sent to France and by 1927 more than 500 cemeteries had been completed, containing over 400,000 headstones, 1000 Crosses of Sacrifice and 400 Stones of Remembrance. By 1930 the cemeteries had been completed although memorials were still being erected with the completion of the Thiepval Memorial in 1932 and the Vimy Ridge Memorial in 1936.
Although there was little damage to the memorials and cemeteries during the Second World War, the horticultural challenge after that conflict was significant. However by 1948 everything had been restored to the pre war appearance. In 1960 the name of the organisation was changed to ‘The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’.
The governments of the commonwealth countries contribute on a ‘pro rata’ basis according to the number of their countrymen buried in the CWGC cemeteries. Accordingly the percentage of contributions is as follows: United Kingdom – 78.43, Canada – 10.07, Australia – 6.05, New Zealand – 2.14, South Africa – 2.11, India – 1.20.
In the course of many battlefield tours, Rifleman has only scratched the surface with regards to visiting these cemeteries. But if you have a relative buried in a CWGC cemetery and wish to visit the grave, we will do all we can to make this possible. We even play the Last Post and read the famous exultation as you lay your wreath and pay your respects. We at Rifleman Tours feel this is the least we can do.
Lest we Forget