The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Centre (CWGC) opened a new centre in Beaurains just south of Arras in Pas-de-Calais in the summer of 2019. It’s a major attraction where you can go ‘behind the scenes’.
You’ve probably seen a few of the cemeteries and memorials that the CWGC maintains, but have you ever wondered about the background? Why they are there, why arranged like that? How is it that those peaceful plots with their headstones placed in army-disciplined serried ranks stay so pristine?
You’re about to find out.
The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The CWGC does astonishing work. It cares for war graves and memorials at 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories. It commemorates and helps maintain the 1.7 million graves of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two world wars of the 20th century.
It also looks after the graves of the 68,000 civilians killed during World War II.
The CWGC has a large horticultural staff to maintain the plants and grass that are an integral part of every British cemetery.
There’s an extensive archive split into the Commission Archive which holds photos, documents, plans and more about the CWGC and the Casualty Archive. The latter is the online database to use if you are searching for somebody killed in one of the two 20th-century world wars.
It all began in 1918 with data such as the location of bodies and any details about the remains was collected. All this was recorded and when the bodies were then exhumed and reburied, the information went to the Army Burial Officer, then to the Department of Graves Registrations and Enquiries. All these records formed the basis of the information held today by the CWGC.
But the CWGC goes beyond that. It searches for the identities of those whose bodies or parts of bodies are still being unearthed by ploughs or diggers all along the Western Front – about 50 on average every year.
The CWGC covers the whole of the Commonwealth as Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote in his major report in 1917. ‘India and the Dominions have sent so many of their sons to lie in the graves which for generations to come will mark the line of our front in France and Flanders.’ (See more at the end of this article.)
It’s these kind of details that you discover on a visit to the new Centre as you’re drawn into their extraordinary work.
Tour the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Experience
A short video about the CWGC sets the scene. Then you walk out to the workshops, each one covering an aspect of just what the Commission covers.
Stonemasons cut and engrave the headstones from slabs of Portland stone. There are more than 25 different types produced, each one weighing 80 kilograms. The policy of conservation where possible means that in France and Belgium alone, around 15,000 headstone are re-engraved each year at the cemeteries. What must be legible on the headstone is the name and details. Around 3,000 new headstones are produced every year.
In the carpentry workshop, making doors and benches, French oak is used, with traditional methods being followed where possible. So screws, nails and glue are used as a last resort.
The sign makers, like the other experts here, must follow strict rules. Every sign has the same colour, font and size to make them uniform throughout the world.
The gardeners’ workshop comes as a surprise, but horticulture is an integral part of every cemetery and a huge part of the CWGC’s work. 900 gardeners look after over half of the 1,750 acres of grounds throughout the world.
It’s another specialised department, sourcing maples from Canada for the Canadian soldiers buried in Dieppe.
Headstone borders have a mix of roses and herbaceous perennials with low-growing plants just in front of the headstones. The idea has always been to make the cemeteries look like a British graveyard, with borders and paths.
10 gardeners work here, and mechanics look after the equipment (particularly the lawn mowers). They work with the Swedish company Husqvarna, which helps repair the machines.
The blacksmiths produce everything needed from hinges and locks to cemetery gates and those all important cemetery registers that you see in every single cemetery. Like all the other craftsmen, they use traditional methods as they forge and hammer out the metal destined for a CWGC site.
Recovery and Reburial
The last section is the most moving. This is where the research is done on every body that is found on the former battlefields. Glass cases show objects that have been found along with the body that give clues as to the identity. It finishes with a video showing the whole long process from discovery to the final reburial.
For details of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Experience, address, location, hours of opening, see at the end of this article.
The Intriguing History of the CWGC
World War I – ‘The war to end all wars’
The inspiration for what became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission began early in World War I. Fabian Ware, the commander of a mobile unit of the Red Cross, saw the aftermath of the battles and the bodies that lay buried in so many ways across the wastelands of the Western Front.
He decided that the graves of all those soldiers who died in a foreign land should be recorded. The aim then was to rebury the bodies in official war cemeteries scattered throughout France and Belgium. In 1915 his unit become the Graves Registration Commission of the British Army and in 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission with the Prince of Wales as President and Ware as Chairman.
It’s difficult to imagine the aftermath of all those battles of World War I. The bodies of dead soldiers had been buried randomly: in large army base cemeteries, in independent cemeteries of local towns or in open country, adjuncts to French communal cemeteries, adjuncts to French military cemeteries, in small isolated cemeteries and single burials, particularly after the battle of the Somme. How to deal with all this?
It was a complex and emotionally difficult project. In November 1918, the Director of the British Museum, Sir Frederic Kenyon, produced a major report after interviewing thousands of those involved.
“My endeavour has been to arrive at a result which will, so far as may be, satisfy the feelings of relatives and comrades of those who lie in these cemeteries; which will represent the soldierly spirit and discipline in which they fought and fell; which will typify the Army to which they belonged; which will give expression to those deeper emotions, of regimental comradeship, of service to their Army, their King, their Country and their God.”
After the Armistice in 1918, land was bought for memorials and cemeteries and the work of formally recording the details of all the dead began. By the end of 1918 around 587,000 graves had been identified. 559,000 casualties were recorded as having no known grave.
Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield were the three architects who began the work of designing the cemeteries and memorials while Rudyard Kipling become the literary advisor for the inscriptions. Gertrude Jekyll and Kew Gardens were involved with the proposed plantings.
Today the CWGC cemeteries that dot the landscape of north France and Belgium follow the same pattern, of a ‘battalion on parade’: ranks of perfectly placed headstones in military precision, each gravestone of the same dimensions just with the name of the dead, rank, regiment and date of death. Each regiment has its own regimental badge. The sense of equality is deliberate whatever the military rank or position in civilian life.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
5-7 rue Angele Richard
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 21 52 75
Open Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm
Closed January and first part of February
Location Around 1 hour 20 minutes drive from Calais
16 kms (10 miles) south of Arras and near World War I battlefields
Information on Ferries to France from the UK
More World War I Sites in north France
Visit La Coupole for an overview of Hitler’s V2 rockets and the space race
The secret and brutal blockhouse of Eperlecques
The strange story of the V3 weapon, and Lt. Joseph Kennedy’s part in the bombing of Mimoyecques.
The excellent website worldwarIcemeteries.com is a photographic guide to over 4000 Military Cemeteries and Memorials of the Great War.
Cover photo is of Etaples Military Cemetery © Geerhard Joos used with permission by ww1cemeteries.com.