Commonwealth War Graves Commission: A Brief History

19 Jun 2021

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission honours the 1.7 million people across both World Wars who made the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, ensuring they are never forgotten.

This article looks at the history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and its vital work today.

During gruelling and bloody First World War battles, great swathes of men would die with no possibility of a peaceful, family attended burial or headstone. Instead, they remained where they fell, and the soldiers who survived were forced to drag them away from the violence and bury them wherever they could.

“Imagine that churning battlefield on the Western Front. 

“Soldiers clashing in the mud and men being buried by their comrades as best they could.” 

Historian and Interpretation Officer for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Max Dutton, spoke to BFBS broadcaster Mark McKenzie about how the idea of people dedicating their lives to making sure grieving relatives could visit their loved one’s final resting place came about. He said:

“Into that wilderness, that landscape, came a man called Fabian Ware. 

“He went over with the British Red Cross and he saw graves in the corners of fields and he said, nobody’s keeping an eye on these, nobody’s telling loved ones back home where their sons and husbands final resting places are.” 

wounded man carried during the Battle of the Somme © IWM (Q 79501) - duotone

Fabian immediately petitioned the Red Cross to start recording graves given official recognition by the British Army in 1916. As a result, he was given the title of Head of the Graves Registration Unit, whose task was to record where service personnel were being buried. This gave loved ones a crucial link to lost partners, sons, brothers, uncles and friends. Eventually, that morphed into the Imperial War Graves Commission when Fabian asked: 

“Who’s going to look after all these graves once this war is over?”

The Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Royal Charter with Fabian Ware at its head on May 21, 1917, with the monumental task of caring for war graves worldwide. Speaking on Armistice Day 1938, Fabian was able to express the importance and magnitude of the work he was undertaking, saying: 

“I was able to record the real drawing together of those who had been enemies of one another in the Great War. 

“In drawing together in common Remembrance of their dead.  

“Their ten million dead.”

After the Second World War, the commission was expanded for the recent conflict’s vast numbers of fallen personnel. In 1960, the name was changed to Commonwealth War Graves Commission to remember all who died from the 54 countries of the Commonwealth.

Reburial of Lance Corporal Frederick Thomas Perkins Loos British Cemetery Credit Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Who Made The CWGC What It Is Today? 

Fabian Ware was determined to ensure the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission after the First World War was of the highest standard. To do this, he brought together a remarkable group of creative minds. The architecture was by some of the most significant architectural minds of the time – Sir Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Cenotaph in London, and Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield. The inscriptions were written by Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book and the poem If. 

Of this, Mark said: 

“Kipling’s involvement wasn’t really surprising, given his family history.” 

Kipling provided all the inscriptions for the Imperial War Graves Commission after the First World War. His son Jack Kipling, an Officer with the Irish Guards, was reported injured and missing in action in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos. Mark offered his thoughts on why Kipling chose to help the Imperial War Graves Commission, saying: 

“I always feel Kipling was doing it for him. In memory of his missing boy.” 


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