Tuesday, 11 November 2008
"...for your tomorrow, we gave our today." An interview at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is a unique body, responsible for the monumental and perpetual task of commemorating those who died in the two world wars.
Of the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two World Wars, 925,000 remains were recovered, and their graves are marked with a headstone in war cemeteries in 150 different countries. Where the remains were not found, the casualty name is commemorated on a memorial.
According to the Commission's Charter, their task of maintaining and conserving the War Cemeteries is eternal.
They are also responsible for providing information to the public about the location of ancestors' graves or memorials, and take on an educational capacity, organising talks, attending family history fairs and creating CD Roms for schools. Their latest, About A Boy, tells the story of a 16-year-old, World War 1 soldier and has been distributed to every secondary school in the UK.
We went to their headquarters in Maidenhead, Berkshire, to meet David Parker and Peter Frances, to learn more about this fascinating organisation.
"Worldwide we have 73,000 cemeteries. Around 2,500 of these are Commonwealth War Cemeteries which were constructed by the Commission after 1918," David explains.
"The bulk of the cemeteries we are responsible for are graves in other cemeteries, especially in the UK where there are over 12,000 cemeteries containing war graves, of which 600 are large plots."
"One of the nicest things about the Commission is that no one is distinguished by cause of death or creed. You could have won the Victorian Cross or been killed in a train accident, but you will still be treated in exactly same way," Peter says.
"Some people assume all the headstones are crosses, but they are specifically designed to commemorate any faith be it Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jewish. If you go to a cemetery, the main commemorative strain is Christian and that is a cross, but there are those that are non-specific headstones."
"Although the people who founded the Commission came from a very privileged background they had incredible foresight and liberal attitudes to the nature of this. When you look back at the principles the Commission was founded on, today they seem like common sense but at the time this was absolutely brand new. No one had ever done anything like this before and certainly, no one had decided to commemorate all their fallen men in conflict, without military or civil rank, or distinction. So it really is an amazing organisation."
The formation of the Commission, and its founding principles was primarily the work of one man, Sir Fabian Ware who at the outbreak of World War 1 was deemed too old for active service, so he arrived in France in September 1914 to command a British Red Cross Unit.
Amidst the battlefields, he realised there was no organisation in place to record the final resting places of casualties and became concerned that graves would be lost forever. He and his unit took it upon themselves to register and care for all the graves they could find. Within a year, Ware's unit had been given official recognition by the War Office and was named the Graves Registration Commission.
Ware began to worry about the fate of the graves once the conflict was over, so with the support of the Prince of Wales, he submitted a request to the Imperial War Conference in 1917. It was unanimously approved and the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter on 21 May, 1917. The name changed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the 1960's.
After the First World War, debates raged about how the dead should be commemorated and whether they should be repatriated. On 4 May, 1920, the matter was finally settled. After a persuasive speech by Winston Churchill, it was decided that the Commission would build memorials which commemorated in perpetuity the sacrifice of the Empire's soldiers, and future generations would gaze at these in wonder.
Originally, three trial cemeteries were built and it was unanimously agreed that Forceville in France was the most successful. It was a walled cemetery with uniform headstones in a garden setting. There was a choice of headstones, depending on which faith the deceased originated, but each was uniform white, and the same size.
Since so many had died without a trace, numerous war memorials were built between 1923 - 1938. The largest of these, the Thiepval Memorial in France stands at over 45 metres high and carries the names of over 72,000 casualties from the Battle of the Somme.
When Ware first started his Unit, they received hundreds of requests from relatives for information or photographs of loved ones graves, and by 1917 had dispatched some 12,000 photographs to relatives. Sending photographs of the deceased's final resting place was one of the first public services offered by the Commission, and remains a key aspect of their work.
"The photo service we offer to the public is cemetery related, so we can supply the public with a picture of the final resting place of their ancestor," Peter explains.
"We have a digital and conventional photographic archive of the cemeteries stretching back to 1917, so there are black and white photographs of the very early battlefield cemeteries and of what we call GCU's, which are Grave Concentration Units. These are the men who actually had the task of going into the battlefields, trying to uncover and identify casualties, and then what we call concentrating them into the cemeteries. So if you knew your ancestor was a GCU, we probably have images of him at work."
"We hope to digitalise the photographs of the cemeteries and move to a digital archive, but this obviously takes a great deal of time and resources. Wherever possible though, we do try and show pictures of the cemeteries on the website."
"Actually, since we started publishing the photos on the website, we’ve had members of the public offering us their own photos as well. There’s a gentlemen in Orkney who has been going around photographing the isolated graves in his regional cemeteries and he's sent them to us so we can add them to the website. That’s a really nice interactive side."
"We also have photographs that illustrate the history of the Commission and it's work," David continues. "There is some historical ceremonial archive of the future King George V at the French cemeteries in 1922, with people like Haigh, Kipling and our founder Fabian Ware. We don't have photographs of various regiments, battles, aircraft and tanks. People should contact the Imperial War Grave Museum for that sort of information."
The hardest job facing the commission since it's conception and the task that still presents the greatest challenges is the maintenance of the cemeteries.
After the First World War, half a million headstones were required.
Besides finding enough high quality stone, engraving regimental badges and inscriptions was a time-consuming affair and at the time, there wasn't a machine designed for the purpose.
Horse and carts would go around the cemeteries, delivering masons who would inscribe the headstones by hand at the actual graves, until a Lancashire firm designed a machine for job.
Even so, masons and horticulturists would still travel to the cemetery, work for the day, then camp nearby. For reasons of economy, the Commission established its own nurseries, growing millions of plants to transform the cemeteries, and soften the seemingly endless rows of headstones.
"We are the world's largest horticultural organisation and today, most of our staff are horticulturalists. We measure flowers in tens of thousands not thousands, and headstones in kilometres not metres," Peter says.
"Increasing amounts of preservation and care are needed to keep the ageing cemeteries in the condition we and the public expect so the bulk of the work will always be the maintenance of the cemeteries."
"People forget that maintaining the cemeteries is ongoing and what the Commission needs to do now is pass the message on about what we do. We replace thousands of headstones every single year and engrave in situ hundreds of thousands more. It’s a mammoth task."
The Commission also has to deal with any newly discovered Commonwealth remains.
"Our main problem in what is usually described as battle-field archaeology is the discovery of remains. There are still around twenty-five new cases a year," David says.
"When remains are discovered they are reported to the local authorities who have to satisfy themselves that they are not dealing with a present day homicide. When they are happy they are dealing with Commonwealth remains, we are contacted and arrange for the remains to be recovered."
"Everything that is associated with them is noted down, such as map references and what exactly is found. War grave references are then passed to the member Government who make an investigation and determine if there is an identity for that soldier."
"Our responsibility begins at the end of that process, when the Government says, this is an unnamed man please bury him as such, or this is Private John Smith. We then bury them in the appropriate cemetery with a headstone, and when the funeral has actually taken place, that soldier is then in our perpetual care."
Today, the internet has revolutionised the Commission's services, and the speed at which it can deliver information to the public.
"The website has completely changed the way we work and emails have taken over. When we launched in 1998 we thought it would be popular but we were absolutely staggered by the response we got."
"The first week, you couldn’t even get a telephone line out of this building because we were inundated with people requesting the web address. In the first week it received 4.5 million hits, but today we find we have long visits of an average of 15 minutes," Peter states.
"Since we introduced the website, the number of letters we receive has decreased, but we've had an enormous increase in email enquiries, receiving in excess of 50,000 a year," David says. "People tend to email instead of writing a letter and as such, the nature of the enquiry is becoming more complex."
In 1995 the Commission put their records in the public domain and these can be accessed from their website, http://www.cwgc.org.
The database, known as the Debt of Honour Register, contains information about the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died during the two world wars, and the 23,000 cemeteries, memorials and other locations worldwide where they are commemorated.
The Commission's service is exemplary, and wherever information cannot be printed direct from their site, a hard copy can be requested and sent to your home address. Cemetery reports and cemetery plans can be printed from the website so anyone wishing to visit a war cemetery can easily find the grave of their ancestor.
It is also possible to print out a certificate of the deceased which contains the information held by the Commission about their death, where they are buried and a coloured photograph of that particular cemetery.
"We try and provide a service. The certificate which prints off the website is one thing people come back to us time and time again and say it's a nice touch because it's something they can give to their relative who might not be web literate."
A typical trace will include the casualty's Rank, Initials, Surname, Forenames if they are known, Unit, Regiment, Service Number if known, Age if known, Date of Death, Grave or Memorial reference and the name of the Cemetery or Memorial the deceased is commemorated.
"It a case of less is more," Peter says. "Try surname and initials first and see what it brings up. Then start to build up the other information and you will end up with a positive trace. Not everyone is comfortable with military and service records or even using a website, so we've kept it simple to suit everyone."
"One in twelve people who use the service may want more facilities than this, but the more complicated you make it, the other 11 struggle," David says. "If you try and search the database with masses of information, it won't work. It's best to use fewer search terms to return the correct set of records. Stick with the surname, then initial and gradually add details from there."
From a genealogical point of view, the information displayed on the Debt of Honour Register is all that the Commission holds for that particular casualty. They are not responsible for service records or regimental histories, so genealogists should turn to army records for this sort of information.
There are some differences in the records held for each of the two World Wars. For instance, there are no Cause of Death details for Second World War casualties, but there are for a limited number for First World War entries.
About one third of the Commission's records do not show details for next of kin because not all the "Final Verification" forms sent to the last known address of a casualty's next of kin were returned.
A further difference is the addition of Air Force and civilian casualties in the Second World War. When the Second World War broke out, the Commission had only just finished building the cemeteries and memorials from World War 1, but learning from the past, the Commission earmarked ground for cemeteries from the outset.
Ware also ensured the air force was commemorated in addition to any nurses or civilians who were killed as a direct result of combat.
"Some organisations, because they were viewed as organisations that had an increased risk of death because of the service they were in have war graves within the CWGC. Some strange organisations like the YMCA and Salvation Army have war grave status for example, because they were offering a service that was deemed to be of value to the troops."
"Often you find salvation army units running a little café for the soldiers fairly close to the frontline, or caring for the wounded, so any casualties they suffered have war grave status and are taken in and accredited."
"There are some very famous instances, particularly in the Second World War of nurses who were in the firing line, especially in the Far East such as the Australian nurses who were attacked by the Japanese forces at Singapore and all those records are included."
"There are two categories of nurses in a way; those that were definitely attached to the military forces and were in fact military nurses, and those who were civilian nurses. We don’t look after civilian nurse's graves but Ware did compile a roll of honour of civilians who died as a direct result of any action."
"His civilian list includes over 66,000 names and in 1956 was placed near St George's Chapel in Westminster Abbey, London where a new page is turned every day. So if you were a nurse and killed in the Blitz for instance, your name would be included in there, and your family would have been notified."
Although the Commission has been working for ninety years, the public are still unaware of the services they offer and the records they hold, which is why they attend family history shows and other public events where there may be an interest in their services.
"It makes the public more interested in what we are doing and the services we are providing. In fact, one of the nicest things happened to me when I was at Hampton Court flower show last year. We had the database there and this elderly lady approached the stand and asked if we could find something for her."
"We entered her information into the system and came up with the record of a young airman who was buried in one of the war cemeteries in Germany. When I told her, she started to cry. It took me aback, and she explained it was her brother's grave, and since he had been shot down over Germany, they just presumed he didn’t have a grave."
"This was the first time she’d ever found the information out. She gave me a big hug, and went and got her daughter and about 4 or 5 weeks later we received this note to say they had gone to the cemetery and it was most the wonderful experience. Experiences like this, make the work we do really worthwhile."
By Rachael Hannan: Interview 2004
Published on 50connect.co.uk