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The Commonwealth War Graves Commission: A centenary of commemoration


Before the First World War it was the fate of the ‘ordinary’ soldier to be forgotten. Even when the war started, there was no system or organisation in place to mark or care for the graves of servicemen and women. One remarkable man changed that, and by creating the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), forever changed the way we remember the fallen.

Founding father 

Neither a soldier nor a politician, Fabian Ware was nevertheless well placed to respond to the public’s reaction to the enormous losses of the Great War. Having grown up in Victorian England he was a firm believer in Empire and in the 1900s witnessed the aftermath of the Boer War whilst working in South Africa to set up new schools. After returning to Britain to edit the Morning Post newspaper, a 45-year-old Ware was considered too old to fight when the First World War broke out in 1914. Hoping to save lives where he could he instead volunteered to command a mobile unit of the British Red Cross, ferrying wounded men back from the frontline to dressing stations and hospitals.

As the death toll mounted, each day his unit would drive past more and more makeshift graves and improvised cemeteries. Shocked and saddened by the sheer number of casualties and feeling that this was a disservice to the dead and their families, Ware felt compelled to find a way to ensure the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever. Under his dynamic leadership, his unit began recording the locations of graves and the identity of those buried there, caring for all the graves they could find. Soon other Red Cross units joined in the work. By 1915 it was given official recognition by the War Office and was incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.

Royal Charter

Determined that the spirit of Imperial cooperation evident in the war be reflected in the work of the organisation, Ware was intent on it being a Commonwealth remembrance. Slowly the work received wider recognition and support and, with the encouragement of Edward, Prince of Wales, Ware submitted a memorandum to the Imperial War Conference. On 21 May 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter (it was renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960), tasked with registering graves and planning cemeteries and memorials to be built after the war. The Prince served as President and Ware as Vice-Chairman, a post he held until his retirement in 1948.

The highest standards

In 1918, after the Armistice, the CWGC’s work began in earnest. Land for cemeteries and memorials was secured and principles established that still guide the organisation’s work today. Perhaps the most important, and revolutionary for the time, was that all should be treated equally in death, with no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed. Cadets, captains, buglers, brigadiers, generals – all were given the same the same Portland headstones, 30in by 15in.

With equality at the Commission’s core and setting the highest standards for all its work, three of the most eminent architects of the day – Sir Edward Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – were chosen to design and construct the memorials and cemeteries, Rudyard Kipling advised on inscriptions and Sir Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, interpreted the different approaches of the principal architects. Early on Ware also arranged for advice on the horticultural treatment of cemeteries to be provided by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

The task of constructing the cemeteries and memorials was enormous – by 1918 some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties were registered as having no known grave – and it would not be complete until 1938. Just a year later the Second World War expanded the Commission’s work around the globe.

The Second World War

When the Second World War engulfed mainland Europe the Commission was forced to evacuate its staff and leave the cemeteries but when the tide of war began moving in the Allies favour the Commission began restoring its 1914-1918 cemeteries and memorials to their pre-war beauty. Then came the task of commemorating the 600,000 Commonwealth casualties from the latest conflict. Different to the last World War, the increased use of air power meant that casualties were no longer restricted to military personnel. At the request of Winston Churchill the Commission extended its remit and created a roll of honour that commemorated 67,000 civilians who died as a result of enemy action during World War Two.  

A local connection

Ware, who was appointed CMG in 1917, CB in 1919, KBE in 1920 and KCVO in 1922, died at home in Amberley, Gloucestershire, on 29 April 1949 shortly after his retirement. He is buried in the local Holy Trinity Churchyard, which is just up the road from The History Press headquarters in Stroud and there is a memorial to him in Gloucester Cathedral. His grave is watched over by the Commission and a CWGC pattern headstone marks the grave. A tablet was also erected to his memory in the Warrior's Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

The CWGC today

Today, the CWGC pay tribute to 1.7 million men and women who gave their lives, by caring for their graves and memorials at more than 23,000 locations in over 150 countries and looking after the records of the dead. It’s annual budget of £65 million is spent maintaining each and every grave in perfect condition, no matter how far afield. In all there are 1.1 million headstones to look after as well as hundreds of memorials listing the names of 700,000 troops whose bodies were never recovered. Their work is supported by member governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom and realised by a dedicated workforce of 1,300 staff worldwide.

The CWGC is one of the world’s largest horticultural organisations – some 850 men and women are employed directly as gardeners or stone masons. They mow the equivalent of a thousand football pitches a week and re-engrave or replace thousands of headstones each year to ensure those who died will always be remembered.

From the Western Front to the deserts of Africa, from the frozen north of Russia to the tropical climate of Singapore, the CWGC tends thousands of graves and memorials and cares for more than a million headstones. No grave is too far, no job is too hard and no one is forgotten. By preserving the memory of the dead with simple dignity and true equality, the Commission hopes to encourage future generations to remember the sacrifice made by so many.


For more information about the CWGC or to find out more about their work please visit their website at You can also follow them on Twitter via @CWGC or like their page on Facebook

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Quick Facts
  • Inscriptions

    Relatives of the dead were allowed to choose a personal inscription to go beneath the name on the headstone. They were permitted 66 characters to sum up a loved one’s life and death.

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