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British Cemeteries

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

All the British and Commonwealth cemeteries that you

see on your visit were built and are maintained by this organisation. It was established in 1917, towards the end of the First World War, largely at the instigation of a man called Fabian Ware. The job of the Commission is still fundamentally the same as it was when established, to mark and maintain the graves of members of the forces of the Commonwealth killed in action during the two World Wars, to build memorials to those with no known grave, and to keep an accurate record and register of the dead that may be consulted by their relatives.

The Commission is a large organisation, with a staff of 1,300, the majority of whom are gardeners and craftsmen. They look after 2,500 cemeteries spread over 140 countries world-wide, although by far the greatest concentration are in north-west Europe, particularly in France and Belgium. Over 900,000 men and women killed in the two World Wars are buried under CWGC headstones over identified graves, and a further 800,000 are commemorated on memorials to the missing such as the one at Thiepval. The cemeteries that you see today in France and Belgium reflect the principles that Fabian Ware set down in 1917.

There is a great emphasis on individual remembrance, so that every serviceman or woman killed in the Western Front has their name commemorated there once, either on a named headstone or on a memorial. All the dead were to be treated equally, hence the uniformity of the headstones.

There was to be no repatriation of bodies, again for reasons of equality. Left to the families, the rich would be able to take their dead back to the country of origin and the poor would not. It was to prevent this and to ensure equality of treatment that Ware insisted in 1915 that all servicemen or women killed in a theatre of war should be buried there. It is a principle that has been followed world-wide until very recently and was certainly followed in the years after World War One. All the Empire dead of the Western Front (with the exception of those evacuated home wounded who died later) still lie here.

The Style of the Cemeteries

The pattern you see today was devised by architects working for the Commission in the early 1920’s, and followed world-wide ever since. The cemeteries differ widely in size but the basic principle remains the same. They are meant to be beautiful, peaceful places that are both dignified and as comforting as possible to the bereaved families. One of the original architects stated that his aim was to make them as close in feel and atmosphere to an English country churchyard as size and location would allow. Another, Sir Edwin Lutyens, said that ‘while it was important to secure the qualities of repose and dignity there was no need for the cemeteries to be gloomy and even sad looking places.’

In the Cemeteries

  • The Cross of Sacrifice – Common to all but the very smallest cemeteries and meant to symbolise ‘those ‘crucified on the battlefields’. It is the focal point for Christian remembrance in the cemetery.
  • The Stone of Remembrance – Usually only found in cemeteries of more than 400 burials, it is meant to provide a focus and wreath-laying site for commemoration and ceremonies in the cemetery that would be acceptable to those of any religion (or none). The inscription ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’ is taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus and was chosen by the poet Rudyard Kipling whose son jack was one of the missing of WWI.
  • The Register Box – A bronze container, usually set in a wall which contains the cemetery register and visitors book.
  • The Register – The graves themselves are not set out in any particular order. They are grouped together in a series of plots, each one of which has a number. Within the plots the rows are given an identification letter, then each grave in that row is numbered. The register helps you to find the grave you are looking for quickly and easily. The names of the dead are listed alphabetically and after the name the grave location is give, e.g., ‘Bennet, Arthur, son of … etc II.B.6.’ (i.e. plot 11, row B, grave 6). There is a map showing plots and rows at the front of the register.
  • Headstones – When these were designed, great stress was laid on equality of treatment. Thus a headstone was chosen rather than a cross, so as to be suitable for burials of any religion or none. All headstones were to be the same size and shape. This might sound an obvious idea nowadays but in the early 1920’s when these stones were designed, the idea of treating a Private in the same way as a General, a factory worker in the same way as a Lord was incredibly forward thinking and controversial. Each one follows the same pattern, engrave with a national emblem or a service or regimental badge, followed by rank, name, unit, date of death and age. The inscription at the foot was chosen by the families of the dead and was the only personalisation of the gravestones allowed.
  • Unknown burials – Each body found is given an individual burial where possible, whether it can be identified or not. Burials of bodies where identification was not possible are under headstones inscribed: ‘A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God’, words chosen by Kipling. Each person buried in an unnamed grave will be commemorated on a Memorial of the Missing. (Not everyone on a Memorial has a grave, of course, as many bodies were destroyed, or have not yet been found).
  • The Flowers and Trees – These are wherever possible similar to those that would grow naturally in the places where the dead come from.

German Military Cemeteries

The German War Graves Welfare Organisation

The German cemeteries are maintained by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberf Orsorge. Unlike its British and French equivalents this was originally a private organisation relying heavily on public donation and help. Nowadays these cemeteries receive German Government funding and the organisation employs many full time staff. However, given the organisation’s origins in the political and financial chaos of early 1920’s Germany, there has always been a strong tradition of self help and great emphasis is placed on voluntary work, particularly by young people in order to help maintain them. Summer work camps are popular and well attended.

The Style of Cemetery

Unlike British and French cemeteries, the style of German cemetery is not constant and if you visit a cemetery in Flanders such as Langemark, and then visit one on the Somme or near Arras or Verdun you will see many differences. However they do have basic ideas in common;

  1. The architects were trying to convey the waste and sorrow of warfare. German cemeteries are always sad, rather depressing places and this is quite intentional.
  2. The architects had to deal with the problem of fitting sometimes quite large numbers of bodies into the relatively small area of land that their former enemies would allow them. This is why each grave marker, whether headstone or cross has several or many names on it.