Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The talk at this month’s Henley’s Royal British Legion Branch Lunch was on the history and formation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Sue Wright of the CWGC how the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission which now commemorates the 1.7 million Commonwealth men and women who lost their lives during the First and Second world wars, was set up during the First World War in 1917.

She outlined the immense difficulties which were encountered in the early days because, whilst today we are familiar with the cemeteries and memorials,  in 1917 the idea of remembrance and, therefore, the Commission was revolutionary.   No nation, let alone an Empire as vast and multicultural as the British Empire, had ever attempted to commemorate all its war dead from a given conflict. No template existed for the task of commemorating the dead on such a mammoth scale. Everything we now take for granted, every facet of remembrance, had to be worked out, debated, costed and delivered.Sue explained that the Commission had faced some almost insurmountable challenges.  The idea of commemorating all the dead in the same way was considered controversial. Some families maintained their own ideas of how they wanted to mark the graves of their loved ones and were desperate to bring them back.

They railed against the Commission’s policy of non-repatriation. For others, the decision to cater for different religions caused anger from a predominantly Christian Great Britain. A petition of over 8,000 signatures was raised to register protest at the decision to use rectangular headstones rather than cruciform shaped markers.  These factors placed enormous pressures on the Commission as it tried to see through its vision.

The Commission, and the establishment of remembrance as we know it today, is largely thanks to the vision and determination of one man. Fabian Ware.  Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield - were chosen to begin the work of designing and constructing the war cemeteries and memorials. Rudyard Kipling was tasked as literary advisor to recommend inscriptions.

The next Henley RBL Lunch will be held on Tuesday 19 April, at the Menza Café, and there will be a talk on Philanthropy in Confectionary by Stan Ainsley