Story behind the First World War cemeteries and why they matter

Prof Alison Fell looks at Commonwealth War Grave Commission documents in the Brotherton Library, at Leeds University. (Simon Hulme).
Prof Alison Fell looks at Commonwealth War Grave Commission documents in the Brotherton Library, at Leeds University. (Simon Hulme).
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It’s a century since the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established while the Great War was still raging. Chris Bond looks at its legacy and why it also caused some controversy.

IT’S impossible to drive around north eastern France without coming across the immaculate First World War cemeteries that pepper the countryside. As well as being profoundly moving these cemeteries have become as synonymous with the landscape here as gently swaying wheat fields and the sound of birdsong that fills the air.

Young people laying wreaths during a service last year to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme, at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial in Thiepval, France, where 70,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave are commemorated. (PA).

Young people laying wreaths during a service last year to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme, at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial in Thiepval, France, where 70,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave are commemorated. (PA).

Such a serene picture is far removed from the harsh realities experienced by those on the Western Front a century ago. Back then the fields were sown not with seeds but decaying bodies, victims of a war that by the time the guns finally stopped had claimed 17 million lives, including 888,246 British and Colonial soldiers.

One of the reasons we have such precise, and sobering, figures is down to the meticulous work of organisations such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), established a hundred years ago this month.

By April 1915, a war graves unit had been attached to the British Army tasked with recording the details of those killed. However, two years later with no end to the conflict in sight and the number of casualties escalating, it was felt that a separate government body was needed so the Imperial War Graves Commission (later the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) was established by Royal Charter.

Professor Alison Fell, who heads the Legacies of War project at the University of Leeds, says the Commission’s primary aim was to identify the dead. “There was a need for an independent body for the bereaved because there were so many complicated cases involving the missing, or those who couldn’t be identified, and it was such a huge task that it couldn’t be carried out by the army alone.”

It was harrowing work made all the more difficult by the fact that the fighting was still raging. “They would try and find out who was killed and where their body was and then inform the family. But sometimes, either because the body was missing or the frontline had changed, they couldn’t always do this.”

Given the fraught circumstances they were working in errors inevitably occurred. “This was long before computers so everything was written by hand and with so many men mobilised there were mistakes made with names. There are plenty of stories of families being informed that a family member had been killed when they’d got the wrong person, or he’d been taken prisoner.”

Nevertheless, the commission’s work was crucial. “The bereavement process during the First World War was extremely difficult. The ordinary rituals that people go through when they lose somebody, especially somebody young, weren’t possible during the war because you couldn’t bring back the bodies.

“It meant families weren’t able to have a funeral. So the Commission acted as a kind of proxy for families by visiting and photographing graves and laying wreaths on their behalf.”

After the war finished military cemeteries were created which involved moving and re-interring bodies and liaising with the French authorities. It was a long, painstaking process and there were practical considerations such as deciding what the inscriptions should be. “They were continually finding more bodies during the 1920s as they cleared up the battlefields and it took a while before the gravestones replaced all the original wooden crosses that had been put up. It was an enormous task.”

There were also logistical reasons for setting up the Commission. It gave the state a formal record of how many people had fought and died so that family members, such as war widows, could be compensated.

Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is praised for its pristine upkeep of military graves from the two world wars. However, a century ago the policy of not allowing the bodies of those who died fighting for their king and country on foreign soil to be returned home was a contentious topic. “On the whole the Commission was seen as a positive force for good but there were people at the time who opposed what it was doing,” says Prof Fell.

“The commission didn’t want wealthier families to be able to bring their dead home if poorer people couldn’t afford to do so. The government was worried that if they were seen to be differentiating between soldiers of different classes that it might cause unrest at home.”

However, some mothers objected to this. Among them was Sarah Ann Smith, from Leeds, whose only son, Frederick, died of his wounds in 1918 and was buried at Grevellers near Arras. “She didn’t think it was right for the state to take ownership of the dead in this way and was among those who felt the burial and upkeep of the graves should be a family task.”

Smith wrote a letter to the Yorkshire Evening News in 1919, attacking the government’s refusal to allow repatriation of the dead. She wrote: “I think the feeling is very strong against the attitude of this government, who claimed our boys when living, and 
now they have sacrificed their lives 
we are to be robbed of their dear remains, which belong to us and are ours alone.”

It triggered a vociferous public debate. Smith claimed to speak for other bereaved parents and founded the British War Graves Association, which by 1922 had more than 3,000 members, in a bid to change the government’s policy.

“She wasn’t a particularly wealthy woman she just felt very strongly about this and was able to mobilise opinion,” says Prof Fell.

“Her son died in the final year of the war she was really angry that she couldn’t bring him home, and there were lots of letters in The Yorkshire Post with different points of view which illustrates just how divided opinion was over this at the time.

“A lot of the men who died were conscripts and their families wanted them to be remembered as sons, fathers and brothers. They didn’t want them to be remembered as soldiers forever. It was a controversial decision at the time not to allow men to be brought home, but this has become a bit lost in history.”

Despite the disagreements it caused, Prof Fell says the commission’s work has created an important legacy. “It’s a reminder to younger generations about what happened and the gravestones are memorials as well as individual markers.

“People are aware of the numbers killed in the First World War partly because of the cemeteries. In previous conflicts there were often mass graves and you don’t get a sense of the numbers.

“But when you’ve got individual graves it shows the scale of the conflict. The War Graves Commission changed the way the war dead were remembered.”

Creating a lasting legacy from the Great War

After the war started Fabian Ware, a former editor of the Morning Post, was tasked with searching for the missing, and his unit, the Graves Registration Commission, was formed in 1915 and attached to the British Army.

In May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was created after being issued with a Royal Charter. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as it became known, was a liaison point between the state and grieving families.

Rudyard Kipling, whose only son, John, was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915, worked for the Commission after the war ended.

Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after cemeteries and memorials in 23,000 locations, in 154 countries.