21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Origins of the Commonwealth War graves Commission.

Whenever you visit a CWGC cemetery, or a normal cemetery, and see a headstone, you should always consider what transpired to get that. The journey of the CWGC was not a problem free one as you may imagine when you gaze around a cemetery and see that gentle, respectful, peaceful resting place.

The journey started when Fabian Ware, who after being told he was too old to join the army, he was 45 years of age, gained a position as a commander of a British Red Cross unit. Almost instantly he became concerned that the bodies of the dead would be come lost forever and he felt that could not be let happen. His Oxford Biographical details end with this paragraph and well illustrate the qualities of the man,

It was Ware's inspiration, imagination, dedication, and determination combined with considerable diplomatic skill and political finesse that ensured that throughout the world there are war cemeteries, quiet, dignified, immaculately maintained, welcomingly familiar in the guise of English gardens, providing a permanent and fitting reminder of the individual sacrifice made by British and dominion service personnel in two world wars.

Using all his influence and dynamic leadership he petitioned for recognition. His unit began recording and caring for all the graves they came across. In 1915 his unit was given official recognition by the War Office. They were renamed the Graves Registration Commission and incorporated into the British Army.

In May 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was established. Ware wanted the commission to reflect the 'Imperial' cooperation that was evident in fighting the war. He astutely engaged the Prince of Wales, who became the President when it was established by the Royal Charter. Ware became the Vice-Chairman.

At the end of the war the real work began. Land was secured for cemeteries and memorials and the thankless and enormous task of recording the dead could begin. By 1918 587,000 graves had been logged and a further 559,000 men as having no known grave.

Once the principles were established in regard to where and who would be commemorated the next task was to create a architectural and horticultural uniformity. Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield were employed to design and construct the cemeteries and memorials. Rudyard Kipling was also employed as a literary adviser, mainly in the form of advise on inscriptions. Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum, was tasked with bringing the different concepts of the above men together and these were presented to the commission in November 1918, it highlighted principles that are still abided by today.

Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial.

Headstones and memorials should be permanent.

Headstones should be uniform.

There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.

It also perhaps more controversially banned the repatriation of the remains. It may seem unfair that parents or family could not return their relatives body to a 'better' more suitable graveyard, but this would only have been viable, due to cost, to those in a strong financial position. By definition this would have gone against the main principles defined above if not caused a logistics nightmare.

With Kenyons principles as a starting point, three cemeteries were built as experiments. The one at Forceville in France was deemed to be the best. The architects had created a small walled effect, having consulted garden designer Gertrude Jekyl, with uniformity of headstones in a quiet garden styled setting. To this was added the Cross of Sacrifice by Blomfield and Lutyen's Stone of Remembrance. This cemetery became, after some developments, the template for the commission going forward.

It is the principles of this that you will see when you enter any CWGC cemetery. Though the Cross of Sacrifice will only appear where more than forty burials occur and Stone of Remembrance where more than a thousand lay.


Use this link to see examples of CWGC cemeteries and various aspects of the work done.