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Tyne Cot British Military Cemetery & Memorial, Belgium.

Formed by Royal Charter in 1917
One million, one hundred thousand men and women lost their lives in the service of the British Empire during the First World War. In the Second World War, another six hundred thousand from all parts of the Commonwealth made the same sacrifice. The First World War, which began as a war between professional armies, was very soon to be fought by millions of ordinary citizens turned soldier. Those who died could no longer be “shovelled into a hole…and so forgotten” as had happened, to Thackeray’s indignation, at Waterloo. In May 1917, a new organisation, the Imperial War Graves Commission, was founded to provide permanent care for their graves and commemoration for the missing.[1]

What is The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Tyne Cot British Military Cemetery & Memorial, Belgium.
Picture Credit/Attribution:Tyne Cot British Military Cemetery & Memorial, Belgium.” by Jim Linwood is marked with CC BY 2.0.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is an intergovernmental organisation[2] of six independent member states[3] whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves and places of commemoration of Commonwealth of Nations[4] military service members who died in the two World Wars. The Commission is also responsible for commemorating Commonwealth civilians who died due to enemy action during the Second World War[5].

The Commission was founded by Sir Fabian Ware and was constituted through a Royal Charter in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission. The change to the present name took place in 1960.

As part of its mandate, the Commission is responsible for commemorating all Commonwealth war dead individually and equally. To this end, the war dead are commemorated by a name on a headstone, at an identified burial site, or on a memorial. War dead are commemorated uniformly and equally, irrespective of military or civil rank, race or creed.

The Commission operates through the continued financial support of the member states: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. The current President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II through their fathers, Prince George, Duke of Kent, and King George VI.

Facts and Figures
The Commission is currently responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.7 million deceased Commonwealth military service members in 153 countries. Since its inception, the Commission has constructed approximately 2,500 war cemeteries and numerous memorials. The Commission is currently responsible for the care of war dead at over 23,000 separate burial sites and the maintenance of more than 200 memorials worldwide.[6] The Commission has also constructed or commissioned memorials to commemorate the dead who have no known grave – the largest of these is the Thiepval Memorial[7].

In addition to commemorating Commonwealth military service members, the Commission maintains over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves under arrangements with relevant governments.

The Founder
Major-General Sir Fabian Arthur Goulstone Ware KCVO KBE CB CMG was a British educator, journalist, and the founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Born in Clifton, Bristol, he graduated from the University of Paris in 1894. After working in various education capacities, he travelled to the Transvaal Colony, where, as a member of Milner’s Kindergarten, he became Director of Education in 1903. Two years later, Ware became editor of The Morning Post and returned to England. While editor, he expanded the paper and reoriented it to focus on colonial affairs. After several controversies, Ware was forced to retire in 1911.

When the First World War started in August 1914, Ware (a director of the Rio Tinto Company) tried to join the British Army but was rejected because, at age 45, he was too old to join the British Army.[8] With the assistance of Alfred Milner (his chairman of Rio Tinto), he obtained an appointment as the commander of a mobile ambulance unit provided by the British Red Cross Society. In this role, he began marking and recording the graves of those killed. Ware was struck by the lack of any official mechanism for documenting or marking the location of graves of those who had been killed and felt compelled to create an organisation within the Red Cross for this purpose.[9] The unit soon began to focus exclusively on graves, and the organisation was transferred to the British Army in 1915. The Army Department of Graves Registration and Enquiries was created with Ware at its head the following year. On 21st May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded. Ware served as vice-chairman. He ended the war as a major-general, having been mentioned in despatches twice.

After the First World War ended, Ware was heavily involved in the IWGC’s function and was synonymous with its work. He frequently led negotiations with foreign nations over cemeteries and memorials, dealt with prominent figures in the Commission, and worked to ensure the Commission’s financial security. Ware also attempted to raise support for his ideal of cooperation between the Dominions[10].

In the lead-up to the Second World War, Ware tried to use IWGC’s work as a tool for ensuring peace. When war broke out, Ware continued to serve as vice-chairman of the IWGC and was re-appointed director-general of Graves Registration and Enquiries. He retired from the Commission in 1948 and died the following year.

“In a war where the full strength of nations was used without respect of persons, no difference could be made between the graves of officers or men. Yet some sort of central idea was needed that should symbolise our common sacrifice wherever our dead might be laid and it was realised, above all, that each cemetery and individual grave should be made as permanent as man’s art could devise.”
Rudyard Kipling, “The Graves of the Fallen”, 1919

Passions running high
An article in The Times newspaper on 17th February 1919 by Rudyard Kipling carried the Commission’s proposal to a wider audience and described what the graves would look like.[11] The article, entitled “War Graves: Work of Imperial Commission: Kipling’s Survey”, was quickly republished as an illustrated booklet, “Graves of the Fallen”. The illustrated booklet was intended to soften the impact of Kenyon’s report[12] since it included illustrations of cemeteries with mature trees and shrubs – contrasting the bleak landscapes depicted in published battlefield photos[13].

As you might expect, there was an immediate public outcry following the publication of the reports, particularly due to the Commission’s decision to not repatriate the bodies of the dead. The reports generated considerable discussion in the press and ultimately led to a heated debate in Parliament on 4th May 1920[14].

First cemeteries and memorials to the missing
In 1918, three of the most eminent architects of that time, Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Reginald Blomfield, and Sir Edwin Lutyens, were appointed as the organisation’s initial Principal Architects. Rudyard Kipling was appointed literary advisor for the language used for memorial inscriptions.

In 1920, the Commission built three experimental cemeteries. They were located at Le Treport, Forceville and Louvencourt, following the principles outlined in the Kenyon report.[15] The Forceville Communal Cemetery and Extension was considered the most successful.[16] Having consulted with the master garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, the architects created a walled cemetery with uniform headstones in a garden setting, augmented by Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice and Lutyens’ Stone of Remembrance.[17]

After some adjustments, Forceville became the template for the Commission’s building programme. Cost overruns at all three experimental cemeteries necessitated some adjustments. To ensure future cemeteries remained within budget, the Commission decided to not build shelters in cemeteries that contained less than 200 graves, to not place a Stone of Remembrance in any cemetery with less than 400 graves, and to limit the height of cemetery walls to 1 metre (3.3 ft).[18] At the end of 1919, the Commission had spent £7,500, and this figure rose to £250,000 in 1920 as the construction of cemeteries and memorials increased.

By 1921, the Commission had established 1,000 cemeteries ready for headstone placement and burials. Between 1920 and 1923, the Commission shipped 4,000 headstones a week to France.[19] Small cemeteries were avoided, and graves were concentrated into larger cemeteries. By 1927, when most of the construction had been completed, over 500 cemeteries had been built, with 400,000 headstones, a thousand Crosses of Sacrifice, and 400 Stones of Remembrance.[20]

The Commission had also been mandated to individually commemorate each soldier who had no known grave – which amounted to 315,000 in France and Belgium alone. Initially, the Commission decided to build 12 monuments on which to commemorate the missing. Each memorial was located at the site of an important battle along the Western Front. After resistance from the French committee responsible for the approvals of memorials on French territory, the Commission revised its plan and reduced the number of memorials and, in some cases, built memorials to the missing in existing cemeteries instead of separate structures[21].

Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
Picture Credit/Attribution: Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing” by Eric@focus is marked with CC BY-ND 2.0.

Memorials to the Missing
Reginald Blomfield’s Menin Gate (left) was the first memorial to the missing located in Europe to be completed and was unveiled on 24th July 1927.[22] The Menin Gate (Menenpoort) was found to have insufficient space to contain all the names as originally planned – 34,984 names of the missing were instead inscribed on Herbert Baker’s Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.[23] Other memorials followed: the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli, designed by John James Burnet[24]; the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme and the Arras Memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens[25]; and the Basra Memorial in Iraq, designed by Edward Prioleau Warren.

Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour
With the increased number of civilian casualties compared with the First World War, Winston Churchill agreed to Ware’s proposal that the Commission also maintain a record of Commonwealth civilian war deaths. A supplemental chapter was added to the Imperial War Graves Commission’s charter on 7th February 1941, empowering the organisation to collect and record the names of civilians who died from enemy action during the Second World War, which resulted in the creation of the Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour. Eventually, the roll contained the names of nearly 67,000 civilians. The Commission and the Dean of Westminster agreed that the roll would eventually be placed in Westminster Abbey but not until the roll was complete and hostilities had ended. The Commission handed over the first six volumes to the Dean of Westminster on 21st February 1956; it added the final volume to the showcase in 1958.[26]

Eligibility for inclusion
The Commission only commemorates those who have died during the designated war years while in Commonwealth military service or of causes attributable to service. Death in service included not only those killed in combat but other causes such as those that died in training accidents, air raids or as a result of a disease such as the 1918 flu pandemic.

The applicable periods of consideration are 4th August 1914 to 31st August 1921 for the First World War and 3rd September 1939 to 31st December 1947 for the Second World War. The end date for the First World War period is the official end of the war, while for the Second World War, the Commission selected a date approximately the same period after VE Day as the official end of the First World War was after the 1918 Armistice.[27]

Civilian Commemoration
Civilians who died as a result of enemy action during the Second World War are commemorated differently from those that died as a result of military service. They are commemorated by name through the Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour located in St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. In addition to its mandated duties, the Commission maintains, under arrangement with applicable governments, over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves.

Every grave is marked with a headstone.[28] Each headstone contains the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty inscribed above an appropriate religious symbol and a more personal dedication chosen by relatives. The headstones use a standard upper case lettering designed by MacDonald Gill[29].

Individual graves are arranged, where possible, in straight rows and marked by uniform headstones, the vast majority of which are made of Portland stone. The original headstone dimensions were 30 inches (76 cm) tall, 15 in (38 cm) wide, and 3 in (7.6 cm) thick. Most headstones are inscribed with a cross, except for those deceased known to be atheist or non-Christian. In the case of burials of Victoria Cross or George Cross recipients, the regimental badge is supplemented by the Victoria Cross or George Cross emblem. Sometimes a soldier employed a pseudonym because he was too young to serve or was sought by law enforcement; in such cases, his primary name is shown along with the notation “served as”.

The CWGC is headquartered in Maidenhead, England. Offices or agencies responsible for a specific geographical area manage the worldwide affairs of the organisation: They are[30]:

The CWGC’s work is funded predominantly by grants from the governments of the six member states. In the fiscal year 2020/21, these grants amounted to £66.1 million of the organisation’s income of £74.5 million[31]. The contribution from each country is proportionate to the number of graves the CWGC maintains on behalf of that country. The percentage of total annual contributions for which each country is responsible is the United Kingdom 79%, Canada 10%, Australia 6%, New Zealand 2%, South Africa 2% and India 1%.[32]

Reburials and Identifications
Immediately following the First World War, the British Army remained responsible for the exhumation of remains. The Western Front was divided into sectors and combed for bodies by 12-man exhumation units. Between the Armistice and September 1921, the exhumation units reburied 204,695 bodies.

After 1921, no further comprehensive search for bodies was undertaken, and in February 1921, responsibility for the cemeteries was transferred to the Commission. Nevertheless, despite the rigour of the searches, bodies continue to be discovered in large numbers. In the three years following the conclusion of the general search, 38,000 bodies were found. In the mid-1920s, 20 to 30 bodies were being found weekly.[33]

The discovery of remains of First and Second World War casualties remains a fairly regular occurrence, with approximately 30 bodies discovered annually. For example:

  • In 2006, the bodies of eight Canadian soldiers from the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers) CEF were discovered in a backyard in Hallu, France.[34]
  • In April 2013, the remains of four British soldiers, discovered by a French farmer clearing land with a metal detector in 2009, were re-interred at HAC Cemetery near Arras, France.[35]
  • In March 2014, the remains of 20 Commonwealth and 30 German soldiers were discovered in Vendin-le-Vieil, France, with the Commonwealth soldiers being subsequently reburied at the Loos British Cemetery.[36]

When remains of a Commonwealth soldier from the First or Second World War are discovered, the Commission is notified, and a Commission burial officer tries to collect any associated artefacts that may help identify the individual. The details are then registered and archived at the Commission’s headquarters. Evidence used for identification purposes may include artefacts found with the remains, anthropological data and DNA.[37]

Sources and Further Reading

A picture containing grass, sky, outdoor, building Description automatically generated
The Kranji War Memorial, a Second World War memorial in Singapore, commemorates 24,306 casualties
Attribution: Walter Lim – FlickrKranji War Memorial, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons
File URL:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

  1. Text ascribed by Amazon (at to Philip Longworth’s book: “The Unending Vigil: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”, published by Pen and Sword.
  2. Being composed primarily of sovereign states (referred to as member states), or of other organisations through formal treaties for handling/serving common interests and governed by international laws. See:
  3. A member state is a state that is a member of an international organisation or of a federation or confederation. The oldest global member state based organiation is the International Telecommunication Union, which joined the United Nations System as a Specialised Agency of the T1088 after the creation of the UN. Source:
  4. The Commonwealth of Nations, generally known simply as the Commonwealth, – cite_note-name-3 is a political association of 54 member states, almost all of which are former territories of the British Empire. The chief institutions of the organisation are the Commonwealth Secretariat, which focuses on intergovernmental aspects, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which focuses on non-governmental relations amongst member states. The Commonwealth dates back to the first half of the 20th century with the decolonisation of the British Empire through increased self-governance of its territories. It was originally created as the British Commonwealth of Nations through the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, and formalised by the United Kingdom through the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The current Commonwealth of Nations was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, which modernised the community and established the member states as “free and equal”. Source:
  5. Source: Peaslee 1974, p. 300 (see:
  6. Source:
  7. Source: Stamp, Gavin (2007). Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Profile Books. ISBN 978-1-86197-811-0. OCLC 1055383547. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is a war memorial to 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen who died in the Battles of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 and 1918, with no known grave. It is near the village of Thiepval, Picardy in France. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, Thiepval has been described as “the greatest executed British work of monumental architecture of the twentieth century”.
  8. Source: “Major General Sir Fabian Ware”. Ministry of Defence Veterans Agency.
  9. Source: Stamp, Gavin (2007). Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Profile Books. ISBN 978-1-86197-811-0. OCLC 1055383547.
  10. The term Dominion was used to refer to one of several self-governing nations of the British Empire. “Dominion status” was accorded to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and the Irish Free State at the 1926 Imperial Conference to designate “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were also dominions for short periods of time. The Balfour Declaration of 1926 recognised the Dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire”, and the 1931 Statute of Westminster confirmed their full legislative independence.
  11. Source: Scutts, Joanna (2009). “Battlefield Cemeteries, Pilgrimage, and Literature after the First World War: The Burial of the Dead”. English Literature in Transition. 52 (4): 387–416. doi:10.2487/elt.52.4(2009)0045. ISSN 0013-8339. S2CID 162051177. BL Shelfmark 3775.070000.
  12. War graves, how the Cemeteries abroad will be designed’ Report to the Imperial War Graves Commission, by Lieut.-Colonel Sir Frederic Kenyon, K.C.B., Director of the British Museum. See:
  13. Source: Braybon, Gail (2004). Evidence, History, and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914–18. New York: Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1-5718-1801-0. OCLC 1100228087.
  14. Source: “Imperial War Graves Commission HC Deb 04 May 1920 vol 128 cc1929-72”. Hansard. Parliament of the United Kingdom. 4th May 1920. See also, Longworth 2003, pp. 51–55 and “A History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”. Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
  15. Source: Geurst, Jeroen (2010). Cemeteries of the Great War By Sir Edwin Lutyens. ISBN 978-90-6450-715-1. OCLC 901292506
  16. Source: Summers, Julie (2007). Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. London: Merrell. ISBN 978-1-85894-374-9. OCLC 1152049462.
  17. Source: Peaslee, Amos Jenkins (1974). International Governmental Organizations. Vol. 2 (3rd ed.). London: Martinus Nijhoff. ISBN 90-247-1601-2.
  18. Source: Geurst 2010, pp. 48–50.
  19. Source: – cite_note-FOOTNOTESummers200727-33
  20. Source: Longworth, Philip (2003) [1st. pub. CWGC: 1967]. The Unending Vigil: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (1985 revised ed.). Pen and Sword. ISBN 1-84415-004-6. OCLC 1016649518.
  21. Source: Geurst 2010, p. 56 and 57.
  22. Source: Hucker, Jacqueline. “Monuments of the First and Second World Wars”. The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  23. Source: Summers 2007, p. 22.
  24. Source: Summers 2007, p. 23.
  25. Source: Geurst, Jeroen (2010). Cemeteries of the Great War By Sir Edwin Lutyens. ISBN 978-90-6450-715-1. OCLC 901292506.
  26. Source: “Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour 1939–1945 – Westminster Abbey”
  27. Source: Gibson, T. A. Edwin; Ward, G. Kingsley (1989). Courage Remembered: The Story Behind the Construction and Maintenance of the Commonwealth’s Military Cemeteries and Memorials of the Wars of 1914–18 and 1939–45. London: Stationery Office Books. ISBN 0-11-772608-7. OCLC 476384770
  28. Source: Geurst 2010, p. 34.
  29. Source: Stamp, Gavin (2007). Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Profile Books. ISBN 978-1-86197-811-0. OCLC 105538354
  30. Source: CWGC Annual Report 2012–2013. Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  31. Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission Annual Report 2021, p. 39-40.
  32. Ibid
  33. Source: Summers, Julie (2007). Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. London: Merrell. ISBN 978-1-85894-374-9. OCLC 1152049462, p.29/30.
  34. Source: Shwartz, Daniel (27 September 2014). “4 WW I Canadian soldiers’ remains identified”. CBC News.
  35. Source: Allen, Peter; Arkell, Harriet (22 April 2013). “Douglas Elphick and Lieutenant John Harold Pritchard buried in France 96 years after killed in action in WWI”
  36. Source: “Re-burial at Loos”. Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 14 March 2014.
  37. Source: Signoli, Michel; de Verines, Guillaume (2011). “Burials related to recent military conflicts. Case studies from France”. In Marquez-Grant, Nicholas; Fibiger, Linda (eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Archaeological Human Remains and Legislation: An International Guide to Laws and Practice in the Excavation and Treatment of Archaeological Human Remains. Oxon: Routhedge. pp. 711–717. ISBN 978-1-136-87956-2. OCLC 755922051

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