Early Practice
It may surprise some to find that the British arrived relatively late to the idea of honouring its fallen in a consistent and appropriate manner. It is less than a century ago that plans were drawn up to systematically record the place and cause of death for those who had been killed on active service and to provide an appropriate and fitting resting place for them. Before that advent, it was down to individuals, officers or regimental practice, in the case of the army, to deal with the bodies of the deceased. Generally, officers were accorded dignity in their burials according to their rank and to their wealth. Ordinary soldiers were often buried in communal graves which might not even be marked by anything more substantial than an improvised cross. Soldiers who died on campaign might be buried in an unmarked grave or buried beneath rocks in some of the more inhospitable terrain and almost certainly unrecorded. Many soldiers never received the dignity of a burial at all.

The Royal Navy was a little more advanced in its thinking - but for pragmatic purposes. Ships were small, confined vessels and it was felt necessary to dispose of bodies rapidly in order to forestall disease breaking out. This thinking was actually ahead of its time as the 'Germ Theory' to explain the transference of disease did not occur until the middle of the 19th Century and yet the Royal Navy had already established a tradition of burying bodies at sea long before a good explanation could be applied for this practice. The story goes that the sailors were sewn into their hammock with the last stitch through his nose in order to ensure that he really was a corpse! A service would be provided as the body lay beneath the white ensign before being committed to the waves. The French Navy was nowhere near as advanced in its disposal of bodies in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. They usually insisted on bringing back bodies for an appropriately Catholic burial on land. Needless to say, disease became a much more prevalent problem in the French Fleet than in the British one.

The Navy was also forward thinking in providing a 'Service for the Dead' for those whose bodies were not recovered; for example, if they had been swept overboard in a storm. There were some exceptions to funeral arrangements for senior officers. If there was a body available, it might be embalmed or pickled in Brandy and brought home to Britain for burial. This was the case for Nelson after the battle of Trafalgar for instance. But generally, the Navy felt it no dishonour whatsoever to be buried swiftly into the sea - most serving personnel probably preferred this option especially as for poorer sailors it saved their families from the expense of a funeral.

Empire War Graves
The Glade
It must be remembered that many soldiers and sailors died of disease rather than as a consequence of military action and especially when visiting some of the more tropical and remote areas of the world. These were likely to be buried in garrison or cantonment graveyards. There were no formal expectations and each regiment or base had its own practices or lack thereof. Having said that, most of these graveyards were located some distance from the base itself - another precaution against the transmission of disease. A good example of a naval burial site can be found in Bermuda in what is known as 'The Glade' or the 'Royal Naval Cemetery'. Bermuda was notoriously dangerous for Europeans especially with regards to Yellow Fever. Consequently, the Admiralty bought a plot of land in 1809 and started using it as a burial ground for its sailors. A similar burial ground was acquired by the Navy in Gibraltar called the 'Southport Ditch Cemetery'. Gravestones were usually purchased by the unit or ship as a whole or by the family in the case of an officer - so there was no standardisation of treatment of the fallen.

Crimean War
Empire War Graves
Scutari Cemetery
In many ways, the treatment of the dead in the Crimean War was little better than in the Napoleonic War - certainly in its early stages. However, the use of the telegraph and of war reporting by journalists such as William Russell of the Times, made the public far more aware of the bureaucratic bungling and inefficiencies of the armed forces; in their care for the living, the wounded and the dead. Once again, disease took far more casualties than battlefields did - despite the efforts of medical innovators such as Florence Nightingale. Some 16,000 men still died of disease compared to less than 3,000 on the battlefield. A mass grave was provided for the nearly 6,000 soldiers who died from a Cholera epidemic - although this was thought to be a way of isolating the Cholera outbreak rather than providing a common resting ground for the victims. For the vast majority however, it was to be the responsibility of individual families and regiments to provide resting places for their fallen loved ones. Two examples of these regimental graveyards were Haidar Pasha Cemetery in Turkey and Cathcart's Hill in the Crimea itself. The former is still in use, but the latter became a casualty of the fighting of the Second World War and of Cold War tensions.

One of the issues that made it difficult to track the dead was the fact that no death certificates were issued on behalf of the deceased. Indeed, record keeping in the entire campaign was lamentable and made it difficult for regiments to know themselves which of their soldiers were living, wounded or who had died. A post-war Royal Commission would instigate a whole series of reforms - although most of them revolved around improving medical care for the wounded rather than disposal of the deceased. Care for the upkeep of graveyards was established though. The Office of Works, a body set up to take care of Public Works projects and parks, was to take responsibility for the maintenance of the Crimean War graveyards. This was then extended to India in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny when the British government took over responsibility of direct rule from the East India Company. There was actually an outsourcing arrangement where the British Indian government would pay the Office of Works for the work done within British India. It is interesting that the responsibility was for the upkeep of the graveyard as a whole and not for individual graves. There was therefore a continuance in the variety of graves found within these graveyards often based on rank and/or wealth. The Office of Works also did not have responsibility for recording or burying the dead - but merely tending what had already been established in whatever manner the graves had been laid out.

The Boer War
Cicely Fox Smith
Cicely Fox Smith Poem
The Boer War once again saw deaths from disease exceed death on the battlefield. But this time, there were an appreciable number of volunteers who had joined the ranks. The families and friends of these volunteers were not content to see their loved ones unceremoniously interred in anonymous mass graves or go unrecorded on the other side of the world. They also did not appreciate the custom of removing all personal effects and 'teeth' by those disposing of the dead (teeth were often sold to make false teeth for the living). A more professional attitude was demanded with more respect being afforded. To this end, the Royal Engineers were tasked with recording (and often burying) the graves of all military personnel. This was the first time that the army as a whole took on a formal responsibility for the immediate disposal of its dead and recording the locations of the graves. But, its responsibility ended there - they were not keen or able to take on the task of caring and tending the graves - especially when the Royal Engineers had moved on to other theatres or tasks.

A group called the Guild of Loyal Women took on the responsibility for looking after the upkeep of the graves. These well meaning women compiled registers and recorded locations to help loved ones locate their deceased family and friends. They also came up with the idea of providing simple iron crosses to mark them. This was the first time that the concept of treating the fallen with a commonality of dignity was proposed. It was a bold plan but beyond the abilities of the Guild to follow it through. It was a voluntary organisation often made up from family members who had lost loved ones or from local people sympathising with the plight of families and friends who would be unable to afford to travel the incredible distances to see the graves of their loved ones. This piecemeal approach was well-meaning but unable to keep up with the job of looking after 25,000 graves in some 356 different cemeteries. The goodwill and intentions of this group are nicely described in the Cicely Fox Smith poem to the right. It showed that women in particular were keen that loved ones' graves should be cared for. It is still a highly patriotic verse, but one that demands respect in return for the sacrifice made by sons, husbands and fathers. However, despite the kind sentiments expressed in this poem towards the Guild, it was clear that this voluntary organisation could not keep up with the massive task before them.

In 1910, a more formal organisation was formed to try and continue the job started by the Guild under the title of the South African Soldiers' Graves Association. Despite the establishment of this formal organisation, funds were still not allocated on the scale required. There always seemed to be a more pressing requirement to spend the money on the living than to set it aside for the already deceased. It did not help that the graves and cemeteries were widely dispersed throughout the huge country. It soon became clear that it could not hope to keep up with the demand for its services. Consequently, over the following years they fell into serious disrepair - especially in the unforgiving geography and climate of Southern Africa.

First World War
The scale of slaughter during the First World War would change Britain's attitudes to its war dead forever. The sheer scale of volunteering, followed by the deadly modern battlefield produced an almost unimaginable scale of suffering and death. Personal grief over the death of a loved one was transmitted into national mourning as nearly every family and community was touched by the industrial scale slaughter. The war ranged far and wide. Most of the battlefields were close to home, in Northern France and Belgium, but many others occurred in Asia, Africa and all over the high seas. This was a true World War and demanded a whole new approach to honouring the dead.

Memories were still fresh in many people's minds about the dilapidated state of the South African graves from the Boer War. One such person who witnessed this first hand was Fabian Ware. He was to become the driving force for the standardisation and formalisation in according respect to the British and Imperial war dead. Neither a politician nor a soldier, he was a teacher who had worked in Education in the Transvaal since the mid-1890s. He therefore saw for himself the effects of the Boer War on South Africa and the declining state of the graves and cemeteries of the war dead there. When World War One broke out, he was too old to fight at the age of 45. Nevertheless, he volunteered with the Red Cross and served in France. His primary responsibility was gathering the wounded and stragglers and to bring them back to Red Cross Posts and hospitals. He also recorded where all the dead bodies were buried so that the next of kin could be notified. However, he and his unit went one step further by taking some responsibility for the repair and upkeep of these graves. He was concerned that the makeshift graves scattered over a wide area would not withstand the passage of time and that families and next of kin might become distressed to not be able to find their loved one's graves or find them in considerable disrepair. He also was aware that the French Army was being much more systematic in the treatment of its war dead with wooden crosses being laid out in an orderly way in large graveyards. A Red Cross medical assessor, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Stewart, agreed with Ware and allowed him to switch his priorities to gathering as much information as possible about where the dead had fallen and to care for the upkeep of these graves. It was to be a Red Cross operation, but all the facilities and supplies required were supplied by the British Army. The War Office granted recognition of what became known as the 'Graves Registration Commission.' The Commission was soon inundated with requests for information, photographs and details of the location of the graves. It was clear that there was a heart-felt demand for the services of the Commission.
Empire War Graves
Processing Information

The next step was to acquire land from the French government to provide final resting places for the fallen British and Imperial soldiers. This was achieved by Major General Neville Macready. He was able to negotiate the acquisition of land close to the battlefields but far enough removed from population centres and not taking up too much prime agricultural land. The French government granted land but made requests on the density of graves and their layout. Once the land had been made available it was decided that individual families' requests to have loved ones returned would be denied from that point forward. Up until that point, families who had the financial ability to arrange for bodies to be returned home could do so. This was slightly easier for families from Britain rather than elsewhere in the empire, but it was still a considerable burden and beyond the financial abilities of most families. There was some resistance to this denial, especially from more well-to-do families, but Ware and Macready demanded that officers should be allowed to lay with their soldiers in these new graveyards. Orders were given that no bodies were to be exhumed and repatriated to Britain. They were to be taken to these specially appointed graveyards; A photograph was then taken of the gravestone and sent to the family with instructions on how to locate the grave. Ware's unit was renamed the 'Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries'. It initially concentrated on the big battlefields in France and Belgium, but soon it was being copied in the other theatres of World War One too.

Imperial War Graves Commission
Empire War Graves
Graveyard being Converted
As the war continued and the casualties continued to mount, there was some discussion in formalising the care for these graves long term in the post war period in what was hoped to be the 'war to end all wars'. The scale of sacrifice had gone beyond what anyone could have possibly imagined. It was also realised that a British only response would not be adequate. The Empire as a whole had supplied huge numbers of soldiers and these had died on an equally tremendous scale. It was therefore decided that a new organisation called 'The Imperial War Graves Commission' would be set up in 1917 to coordinate a long term approach to honour the war dead. Donations, expertise and personnel would be sought from all the participating imperial governments and colonies. The Prince of Wales agreed to become its first President giving it Royal patronage. Rudyard Kipling, bard of Empire and also distraught after having lost his own son, became the Commission's literary adviser. Heavyweight architects, horticulturalists and artists were recruited to the organisation as the commission became something of a binding imperial project. The 1917 Imperial War Conference unanimously agreed to its creation and a Royal Charter was granted to the organisation on 21st May 1917.

Empire War Graves
Forceville Cemetery
The aims for the organisation were impressive in scope. They were to care for all members of the Armed Forces of the British Empire who had died from 'wounds inflicted, accident occurring or disease contracted, while on service whether on sea or land.' It was given the power to acquire land and build cemeteries and memorials where required. It was to keep records and registers and to tend to graves outside of their own cemeteries if required. In short, it was a comprehensive solution that honoured the scale of sacrifice of the Armed Forces of all imperial armies for the entire duration of the War. They were able to achieve all this with an artistic endeavour and uniformity of purpose that made the resulting cemeteries and memorials impressive architectural achievements in their own right. The three key designers were some of the most eminent architects of the era; Sir Edward Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield. The Director of the British Museum, Sir Frederic Kenyon, was brought in to judge the most suitable combination of elements and architectural styles and laid them out as a comprehensive report to the Commission in 1918. It was his harnessing of the creative vision that laid down the framework for all the subsequent work by the Commission.

Empire War Graves
Thiepval Memorial
Between them, they insisted on a uniform style of headstone within individual graveyards but were prepared to adapt the format to the local conditions, geography and materials. This would allow them to achieve a commonality of treatment but still to make it practical and affordable no matter where in the world the graveyard was to be found. Furthermore, there was to be no distinction between the size and ordering of graves. In an unusually democratic move for the early 20th Century, the Commission insisted that officers and men should be treated exactly the same. Even more remarkably, there was to be no demarcation in treatment for where the soldiers came from - so all creeds, religions and colonial soldiers were to be treated the same - whether from Britain, West Indies, India or Australia. The principle was that they all had given the ultimate sacrifice and that the least the Commission could do was to honour this sacrifice equally for all and for all time.

The respective armies still had the initial responsibility for burying their dead soldiers but once they had been interred the Commission took over responsibility for the care of the graves in perpetuity. The Commission was to give substantial aid to the army in recovering and identifying bodies on the overcrowded and often overlapping battlefields of World War One. The date of
Empire War Graves
Engraving Badges
responsibility for the Commission's objectives was fixed as being any soldier or sailor who died on active duty between 4 August 1914 to 31 August 1921. The latter date was chosen to help bring in the deaths of those who might die from their wounds received during the main fighting but also it was the technical end of war date given by Act of government in Britain. This meant that soldiers who died in places like Afghanistan in 1919 and Iraq in the post war period would also be claimed as having died within the Great War. There were indeed a wide variety of theatres requiring memorials and gravestones. The Middle East had been particularly active with fighting in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and the Dardanelles. Fighting had also occurred in Africa and Tsingtao in China amongst other places. The IWGC tried to create cemeteries that were harmonious and sensitive with the surroundings but still to maintain the order and equality of the large cemeteries back in Northern Europe.

The Royal Navy was at first resistant to handing over its own customs and traditions to the newly created Commission. However, it was felt by many that the sacrifice of all participants should be commemorated. To this end, it was decided that three commemorative memorials would be constructed at the three principal ports of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham. In addition to commemorating the sailors of the Royal Navy, they also remember those from the Royal Australian and South African Navies too. Soldiers who died whilst being transported at sea were commemorated on memorials from the embarkation port wherever possible. As for those who died in service of the Merchant Fleet, Lutyens designed a memorial at Tower Hill. These monuments would all provide the universal consideration that the IWGC wanted to preserve, but also allowed the Navy to maintain their own practices and traditions but also to preserve the memory for those whose bodies would never be recovered.

The Commission's principles
Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on a 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

Construction by the IWGC carried on into the post-war period. In fact, construction took another two decades. It was not until 1938 that it could claim to have completed the mammoth task than had been set for itself - although it still had to maintain these sites in perpetuity. There were other conflicts in the post-war period, but these were not the responsibility of the IWGC. There was a return of responsibility for deaths on active service going back to individual colonial governments or the armed forces involved. Having said that, with the scale of fighting endured during World War One, there was not exactly a huge appetite for bloodshed and the period was relatively quiet in imperial terms - at least until the arrival of a certain Adolf Hitler.

Second World War
The Second World War provided new practical difficulties to the IWGC. On the one hand, there were new deaths to account for and commemorate. However, there was also the problem that existing graveyards were sometimes captured by the enemy and so were unable to be tended. Generally, the Germans and Italians treated captured memorials to the dead and cemeteries with respect and unless the cemeteries were scenes of fighting, they tended to survive the worst ravages of the war.

The experience gained from the First World War would serve the Commission well as they were able to swing in to action almost as soon as the fighting broke out. Often, as in the Naval Memorials, they could add more names to existing monuments. However, they also had the sad task of creating new cemeteries and memorials in new theatres of war.

Empire War Graves
Air Force Memorial
Once again, fighting was on an imperial scale with battles raging all over the world. Singapore, Malaya, Burma, Hong Kong and Egypt all saw substantial casualties and deaths that would need commemorating. Once again, the designers would try and achieve a uniformity and equality of treatment whilst being practical towards the environment and location of the cemeteries.

World War Two also saw some fundamental changes to the nature of warfare. The main development was the importance of the air war. The RAF had become a significant, and indeed crucial, arm of the services during the war. A new memorial was created to remember the 20,000 plus airmen who died over Northern Europe and whose bodies could not be recovered. It was designed by Sir Edward Maufe at Runnymede in Surrey. The air war was not restricted to the armed services though. Aerial warfare had brought civilians into the front line on an unprecedented scale during World War Two. The IWGC decided to create a roll of honour for all civilians who had been killed thanks to enemy action. It ran to include the names of 66,000 civilians and was placed in St George's Chapel at Westminster Abbey. A new page is turned every day.

The arbitrary date selected as the end of the Second World War was set at eighteen months after the end of hostilities. Once again, the principle was that if any soldier, sailor and airman died due to wounds suffered in this period then they would still be commemorated in Second World War cemeteries and/or monuments. Construction continued until the 1960s with 559 new cemeteries created. The first one to be completed was the Canadian War Cemetery in Dieppe which was finished in 1949. The Commission was becoming all too expert at the melancholic task.

Post-War Graves and Cemeteries
Empire War Graves
United Nations Memorial Cemetery
With no new deaths accepted by the IWGC after December 31st 1947, responsibility for those who died in subsequent active service returned to the states involved. In the case of Britain it was to become the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. Similar arrangements were made for those dominion countries which had effectively gained their independence post the 1931 Westminster Conference. That is to say Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada. In the case of dependent colonies Britain was to have the responsibility although the costs and administration was usually transferred to the colony from which the units derived from. In fact, when colonies started to be given their independence in the post-war period, care for the cemeteries and memorials were transferred with sovereignty. The IWGC would still contribute towards graveyards containing service personnel who died in WW1 or WW2 or they continued to operate IWGC graveyards.

1950 saw an unusual conflict with the advent of the Korean War. This was the first and only United Nations sanctioned conflict. Not all Commonwealth countries contributed, although many did. It was the United Nations that requested and (nominally at least) directed the war. Therefore when the conflict was over, the United Nations took responsibility for those who died fighting for them in the conflict and established the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Pusan.

As the empire became a less formal institution and the Commonwealth was pushed forward as a more consensual and collegial organisation, it seemed appropriate to change the name from the Imperial War Graves Commission to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960. It was still to receive funding and support from its members in a proportionate manner. Other countries and ex-colonies still contribute in other ways such as through taking care of the graves in their country for instance.

Partner Governments Percentage contribution
United Kingdom 78.43
Canada 10.07
Australia 6.05
New Zealand 2.14
South Africa 2.11
India 1.20
With plenty of post-war colonial actions taking place and with improved communications and especially air links, it did seem less and less appropriate for soldiers to not be 'repatriated' after dying on active service. If they died in a colonial struggle for independence, it did not seem that burying the soldiers in a country that was soon to relinquish its links with Britain seemed like the best idea. In the 1960s, the concept of bringing bodies back home was considered. Firstly it was a choice. You could either have the body of a loved one repatriated or two members of the family could go and attend a funeral in the foreign clime where the body was to be buried.

1983 saw the construction of a new cemetery in the Falkland Islands. Sixteen families elected to have their family members buried on the island. Many more died on the seas around the islands and whose bodies were never recovered. Sixty four bodies were repatriated by the Ministry of Defence. In fact the CWGC was asked to design and carry out the construction of the cemetery and memorial on the Falkland Islands by the Ministry of Defence. It was not the CWGC's responsibility but it was felt that they had the necessary expertise to advise on such an undertaking.

Empire War Graves
Blue Beach Cemetery
The Falklands War hinted at the changing moods towards repatriation. In 2003, government policy officially changed in the UK. From that date all servicemen killed in the line of action were to be repatriated to the UK at the government's expense. Most bodies were flown to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire from that date. A spontaneous and unplanned mark of respect was offered by residents of Wootton Bassett who showed remarkable reverence for service bodies travelling through their town near the base. As a mark of thanks, the town has been awarded the designation Royal Wootton Bassett. Recently, the MoD has switched its repatriation process to RAF Brize Norton and so the remains of service personnel will no longer pass through Royal Wootton Bassett.

Empire War Graves
Armed Forces Memorial
Family members are given a choice on how they would like the remains of their loved ones to be treated. The Joint Casualty and Compassionate Cell was set up to advise and help families through the procedures and entitlements after having lost a loved one and to put provide support wherever possible. All families are invited to a repatriation ceremony and can choose to have the MoD supply a service headstone, which will be maintained by the MoD in perpetuity, or they can choose their own design in which case they take responsibility for its future upkeep.

A new Armed Forces Memorial has been dedicated to all Post-War service personnel killed. It was felt that the conflicts were so diffuse and scattered over the globe that a focal point was needed to commemorate their sacrifice. There was also the consideration that the nature of warfare had changed to such an extent that it was often difficult to tell who had died directly due to armed conflict and who had died due to terrorism. It did not help that victims of terrorism on the mainland UK, from the IRA for instance, had not been properly honoured. Therefore all UK service personnel killed on active service or due to terrorist outrages is commemorated at the Naitonal Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. It was designed by Liam O'Connor but draws heavily on the form and style of the IWGC (CWGC). One key difference to the CWGC cemeteries though is the continual appearance of new names as service personnel continue to be killed on active service. It seems as if the initial hopes of those planners at the IWGC to plan cemeteries and memorials to signify the sacrifice of men in the 'War to End All Wars' have been dashed. There is still an ever present requirement for armed forces to serve and defend and therefore many, sadly, will still pay the ultimate price.

Images of Cemeteries and Memorials
Significant Individuals
Imperial War Graves Commission
Hong Kong Cemetery
A National Archives Podcast
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia

South Africa War Graves Project

The War Graves Photographic Project

British War Graves Photographic Project

Australian War Graves Photographic Archive

Maple Leaf Legacy Project

Further Reading
A Companion to the British Army
by David Ascoli
(Harrap, 1983)

The War Graves Of the British Empire
by Imperial War Graves Commission

The Unending Vigil: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
by Philip Longworth
(Leo Cooper 1967)

by Mark Quinlan

Silent Cities: A Memorial Exhibition of the Memorial and Cemetery Architecture of the Great War
by Gavin Stamp
(RIBA 1977)

Remembered: A History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
by Julie Summers
(Merrrell 2007)

British and Commonwealth War Cemeteries
by Julie Summers
(Shire, 2010)

The Immortal Heritage
by Fabian Ware
(Cambridge, 1937)

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