Guide to Commonwealth War Graves

Next month marks a full century since the end of the First World War.  In that time, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have dedicated their time to preserving the memory of all the soldiers who have fallen in battle. Read ahead for an extract from A Guide to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


Today, visitors to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s

cemeteries and memorials are more numerous than at any

other time in the organisation’s 100-year history. Their reasons

for visiting are varied and many. Some come to remember

individuals, others out of a sense of duty or to learn, but all depart

better for the experience, inspired by the tragedy and beauty of

these ‘Silent Cities’, as author Rudyard Kipling named them, and

determined to remember those they commemorate.


Few, if any, of those pilgrims were alive when the CWGC was founded,

but all have grown up with Remembrance Day, the poppy, the two-minute

silence and an appreciation for the Commission’s work – the

largest memorialisation programme the world has ever seen. Perhaps

even fewer appreciate the revolutionary nature of that work in creating

the graves, cemeteries and memorials that have shaped and now act as

focal points for our remembrance of 1.7 million war dead. The CWGC’s

war cemeteries and memorials are in many cases the last physical

reminders of those terrible conflicts of the early twentieth century. They

are not monuments to battles or victories, but to individuals, and it is that

fact which makes them extraordinary, because before the First World

War, it was the fate of individual soldiers to be forgotten.


When the First World War broke out in 1914, there was very little to

indicate that one of its lasting legacies would be cemeteries and memorials

the world over commemorating all those who had died – and

commemorating them equally, regardless of their military or civil rank,

race or creed. Even more remarkable is that the very existence of these

cemeteries is largely due to one visionary man – Fabian Arthur

Goulstone Ware (1869–1949). Ware’s story is as unique and varied

as the organisation he founded. It would be fair to say that he was at

a crossroads, certainly professionally, when the war started. But cometh

the hour, cometh the man.


Ware had been an educator and a newspaper editor before the war,

but he was dismissed from his newspaper job because of a badly thoughtout

fundraising scheme to encourage Great Britain to compete with

Germany’s development of the Zeppelin airship. At the age of 45, he

was now engaged in writing a tome on education that was unlikely to

make many waves. Although he was considered too old for active service,

nonetheless he felt duty bound to serve in some capacity.


In September 1914, Ware travelled to France for the British Red Cross

with a motley crew of volunteers driving an assortment of private vehicles

that had been hastily converted to serve as ambulances. Fluent in French,

Ware was initially posted to a section of the front manned by the French

Army. Although he was immediately struck by the scale and savagery of

the war, there was little, as yet, to mark Ware or his unit out. They were

well led and organised, but the vital work they carried out in recovering,

treating and transporting the sick and wounded was a task carried out

equally well by other British and French units.


All that was to change during a visit by Lieutenant-Colonel Edward

Stewart – Ware’s commanding officer and a Red Cross medical assessor

– in October 1914. During a moment of rest, the two men walked and

talked between the rows of hastily erected wooden crosses that formed

a soldier’s cemetery at their base in Bethune. The names on many of

the markers were already becoming faint. Both men were aware of the

growing public dissatisfaction with the treatment of the dead – how

the lack of any obvious system was distressing families at home and

demoralising those serving at the front – and out of this meeting was

born the idea of establishing an official organisation to mark and care for

the graves of fallen soldiers.


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