The War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Photo by Mark Hillary from

Dear Readers,  in his book ‘Where Poppies Blow’ (reviewed yesterday), John Lewis-Stempel tells the story of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), a most revolutionary response to the slaughter of the First World War, but led by a most surprising rebel. Sir Fabian Ware was a Tory who, at the age of forty-five, was too old to fight in the war, but instead became the commander of the Mobile Ambulance Unit of the Red Cross. Ware’s unit did more than transport the dead, though: it also searched for the graves of those who had been killed, largely at his urging.

The army had little time to deal with their dead, and fallen soldiers often ended up in hastily-dug, shallow graves, often dug by their comrades, with nothing but a cross whittled from branches and maybe a few scrawled words. Marking these graves with a proper wooden cross and a metal identification plate soon became the sole job of Ware’s unit, which was renamed the ‘Graves Registration Commission’.

However, this wasn’t enough for Ware, who had not only a vision of how the fallen should be commemorated, but the connections to make it a reality. In 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded, with Ware as vice-chair and Lord Derby as figurehead.

But it was how they decided to memorialise the dead that was truly radical. Get this.

The IWGC determined that all war graves should be uniform, because ‘private initiative’ would lead to the well-to-do erecting ‘costly monuments’ which would ‘contrast unkindly with those humbler ones which would be all the poorer folk could afford’. Some families, notably that of the former prime minister Gladstone, had already disinterred the bodies of relatives and repatriated them. Ware stopped the practice because it smacked of privilege. Soldiers were to be buried in the foreign fields where they fell’ (pg 311 ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel)

Ware insisted that the cemeteries and memorials were constructed of the finest available materials, and that they were designed by the greatest architects of the day, including Sir Edwin Lutyens. By 1927 the IWGC had overseen the construction of more than 500 permanent cemeteries, with over 400 headstones, and had also built memorials to the missing close to the sites of some of the fiercest World War One battles, such as Thiepval and the Ypres Salient (commemorated by the memorial at the Menin Gate). The Menin Gate memorial holds the names of 54,000 of the missing, but a further 34,000 who died at Ypres had to be commemorated on a separate monument at Tyne Cot, close to Passchendael in Belgium.

The Menin Gate memorial, photo by Johan Bakker

Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing (Photo by Gary Blakeley)

Right from the start, the War Graves cemeteries and memorials were thought to be gardens of remembrance rather than just ‘depositories for the deceased’. I always find the simplicity of the designs, the egalitarian nature of those rows of stones very moving: however hierarchical the army was, men and officers lay here together, as they did when they died. And there’s something about the lawns and the flowers that seems like a quintessential English garden of a certain era to me. They are certainly peaceful places, full of bird song and the buzzing of bees. I’m reminded of the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, ‘God’s Garden’. I find this verse strangely moving, even as a non-Christian. After so much bloodshed and suffering, I can only hope that there is peace.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.

The War Graves in East Finchley Cemetery


6 thoughts on “The War Graves Commission

  1. Anne

    The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done sterling work in South Africa. We also have the South African War Graves Project that aims to archive photographs of war graves from the Anglo-Boer War, both World Wars as well as graves of soldiers involved in conflicts in Rhodesia and possibly Angola. In most cemeteries and at battle sites visited all over the country the military graves are generally kept in good repair and are regularly tidied up and swept around.

  2. Liz Norbury

    Thank you for this fascinating post. I didn’t know about the origins of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but I became aware of the scope of its work – across the world and across the years – when I was involved in a community project researching the lives of soldiers whose names appear on one of our local war memorials.

    My great-uncle Mark (my granddad’s much older brother) served in Iraq with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and died in the military hospital in Baghdad on 20 November 1918 – nine days after the Armistice. He is one of more than 4,000 soldiers buried at the Baghdad North Gate War Cemetery, which is under the care of the CWGC.

    As is clear from the CWGC website, maintaining this and other cemeteries in war-torn Iraq is a huge challenge. There have been claims in several newspaper articles that North Gate is neglected and full of weeds – but I wouldn’t have thought that this sun-baked, rough terrain is a place for manicured lawns! In any case, the CWGC has apparently been able to carry out some restoration work in its Iraq cemeteries in recent years and has plans for “a major rehabilitation project “, which is good news, and shows the immense dedication of this wonderful organisation.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I think it’s something of a miracle that any of these cemeteries survive in the midst of such strife and human misery, but there are always people everywhere who will try to keep things in order, whatever the personal cost. It’s fascinating to hear about your Great-Uncle Mark – what a tragedy that he died after the Armistice, I imagine that must have been very hard for his loved ones to bear…

      1. Liz Norbury

        My dad grew up hearing about his Uncle Mark, and my parents had a framed studio photo of him with his parents and siblings in their Sunday best. I have that photo now, and when I look at it, I think about how devastated his family must have been when news reached them of his death.

        On Remembrance Sunday 2018, I went to Mark’s home town of Camborne for a service to mark the centenary of the Armistice. He and his family had lived in the main street, and before the service, the town band marched past the house.

        (If my sister and I had been boys, one of us would have been called Mark. In fact, Mum and Dad were so sure that their second child would be a boy – because their first was a girl – that when my sister was born, they had no idea what to call her!).

  3. Ann Bronkhorst

    When I was an English teacher I went twice with Alevel students on visits to the Somme area tailored to their WW1 literature courses. Unforgettable. Small neat cemeteries are scattered throughout the countryside, each carefully maintained. The huge ones, like Thiepval and Tyne Cot, are breathtaking of course but the small ones, often little visited, are moving in another way.


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