Honouring Our War Dead

by Natalie Salat

From Top: Roses bloom in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Northwest Europe; Veterans Betty Nash of Kitchener, Ont., and the late Gordon Boyd of Fredericton, N.B., are surrounded by tranquility at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Germany.

The autumn sun descends over Brookwood Military Cemetery in southeast England, streaming pale golden light through row upon row of identical white headstones and illuminating a simple inscription on the monolith overlooking them: Their Name Liveth For Evermore. This Biblical phrase, etched on similar stones of remembrance throughout the world, encapsulates the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. As long as the sun continues to rise and set, the commission aims to continue marking and maintaining the graves and memorials for 1.7 million individuals who died serving the Commonwealth forces during the two world wars.

Commemoration is a global task. Now 85 years old, the commission oversees 23,000 burial locations in 148 countries and faces a gamut of challenges: Climate, geography, politics, war. The doors of some countries can stay shut for years, as they did in Iraq during the 1990s. Meanwhile, time continues to wear the commission’s structures. Though the CWGC can, by nature, take a long-term approach to restoration, there is also the matter of staying relevant in the modern world, asserts deputy director general Roger Dalley.

At the commission’s head office, a brown brick building in Maidenhead, England, Dalley highlights the recent shift towards engaging the public in the commission’s work through media such as television and the Internet. “The traditional work of maintenance is what we do all the time, but we think it’s important people realize what the cost of the wars was in human terms.”

That cost becomes clear if you walk into one of the commission’s larger cemeteries, such as Brookwood, where thousands of war dead lie beneath an orderly sea of headstones. Or if you visit one of the commission’s memorials, such as the newly restored Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, and witness the names of more than 54,000 who lost their lives in World War I but had no known grave. “The most important thing to us is keeping the name of the casualty alive,” says Peter Francis, the CWGC’s media officer.

The principles by which the organization operates have not changed since it was established by Royal Charter on May 21, 1917, under the name of the Imperial War Graves Commission: Each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name either on the headstone on the grave or by an inscription on a memorial; the headstones and memorials should be permanent; the headstones should be uniform; and there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed. Records and registers of the war dead must also be kept.

The commission tends solely to graves from the two world wars. War dead refers to those who died in service or as a result of service between Aug. 4, 1914 and Aug. 31, 1921 and between Sept. 3, 1939 and Dec. 31, 1947. Responsibility for Boer War graves lies with South Africa’s National Monuments Council, while Korean War dead are looked after by the United Nations.

The commission came into being during WW I thanks to a forward-thinking Brit named Fabian Ware. “Never before had a nation, let alone an empire, attempted to commemorate all of its war dead without distinction,” says Francis. While commanding a British Red Cross Unit in France in 1914, Ware recognized the lack of an official agency for recording and marking the graves of those killed. Even as the guns continued to pound, Ware and his unit set about registering and caring for all the graves they could find. Ware’s conviction that an official organization should commemorate individuals in perpetuity led him to submit a memorandum to the Imperial War Conference in 1917. It was unanimously approved by the member governments (among them Canada), and the commission was born.

Far from unanimous, however, was agreement on the principles and style of commemoration. The task of bringing these opposing views together fell to Sir Frederic Kenyon, the director of the British Museum. His report to the commission in November 1918 set out principles such as equality of treatment and the non-repatriation of remains, a policy through which casualties would be buried or have their names inscribed on memorials as close as possible to where they fell.

The next phase put theory into practice; three experimental cemeteries were built after WW I. Forceville, in France, was the first to be completed. “It really sets the tone for everything we’ve done since–uniform headstones in rows, a cross of sacrifice representing the fate of the majority, a stone of remembrance representing those of all faiths and none, beautiful horticulture made to look like an English country garden so that there’s nothing gloomy about the cemetery,” explains Francis.

A massive building program ensued, employing designs by noted architects and the expertise of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in England. As had been stipulated in a resolution of the Imperial War Conference of 1918, the cost of the commission’s work was paid for by the participating governments in proportion to the number of graves each required. (This system is still in place. The UK contributes 78.4 per cent, Canada 10 per cent, Australia six per cent, New Zealand and South Africa just over two per cent, and India 1.2 per cent.) For the sake of economy, the CWGC established its own nurseries, given that it needed millions of roses and perennials to plant as headstone borders throughout its cemeteries. Ware also set about securing the land and obtaining protection of the commission’s work through international agreements with foreign governments, particularly those of France and Belgium.

By 1938, more than half a million headstones had been set in place in nearly 1,000 cemeteries, along with approximately 1,000 crosses of sacrifice and 560 stones of remembrance. In addition, 18 major memorials were built for those with no known grave. Thiepval in northern France is the largest of those at over 45 metres in height and carrying the names of 72,000 missing in action. In all, 1.1 million individuals would be commemorated for their sacrifice in WW I. Rudyard Kipling called the construction “…the biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaohs­and they only worked in their own country!”

Sadly, just one year after the building program for WW I was finished, the outbreak of WW II added to the commission’s work. Given the truly global scale of the war, the CWGC’s commitment broadened to nearly 150 countries. This time around, army graves registration units followed the front line, already planning where cemeteries would go. A second wave of construction followed the war’s end to commemorate a further 600,000 individuals, including 66,375 civilians who had been killed by enemy action. This work would not be complete until 1961, a year after the commission had changed its name to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, reflecting a changed world following the war.

Today, the commission tends over 900,000 graves in 2,500 war cemeteries and plots, as well as looking after some 200 memorials, all at a cost of £31 million (roughly $76 million Cdn) a year. In 1992 the capital value of all its cemetery and memorial structures stood at close to one billion pounds ($2.5 billion Cdn).

The CWGC’s governing body is the commission itself, and it consists of the Duke of Kent as its president, the UK Secretary of State for Defence as chairman, the high commissioners of the member governments and nine others chosen for their distinguished roles in public life. “Apart from simply funding the commission,” says Francis, “the member governments are represented on our board of commissioners, so they have a direct input as to what we do. They meet four times a year, and one of the meetings is held in an operational area, so they get to see for themselves what we do.”

The board oversees the financial and management plans from each of the areas, and monitors progress against them. Fluctuating exchange rates and inflation are recurring themes that the commission has to account for in its budgeting.

Dalley says the commission has been “quite fortunate” in the level of support it has enjoyed from partner governments. “We’ve always tried to show our efficiencies, and to be fair they have accepted our explanations.” Canadian High Commissioner Mel Cappe says the partner governments have made a commitment to maintaining their contributions. “We have a duty to those people who died in battle for us.”

With its global scope, the commission must stay on top of developments in climate, technology and politics. To handle the challenge of geography, the commission operates from offices or agencies in the UK, France, Northern Europe, the Western Mediterranean, Africa (where eight countries have agencies) Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand. A separate office, based at Maidenhead and known as Outer Area, looks after graves and cemeteries in some 100 countries. In addition to employing 1,200 staff, three quarters of whom are gardeners and stone masons, the commission uses a vast network of contractors. At the head office, a staff of around 75 includes the principal officers, a small communications team, administrative staff, the records office, a research and development facility and Outer Area employees.

“We like to think now that we are more interested in the heritage aspect, but the sharp end of the work is actually just carrying out the gardening and constant maintenance,” says David Parker, director of information and secretariat at the CWGC. There are two types of operation, explains Dalley: “Half our work is in France and Belgium, concentrated along the Western Front. Although it’s massive in terms of numbers, that is the easier part of the operation because we have our own staff working in our own cemeteries. In the home countries, such as the UK, South Africa and Canada, although we have some of our own sites, we’re always working in someone else’s cemetery.”

In the UK, the commission is responsible for maintaining 170,000 graves at 13,000 burial locations, including churchyards and local cemeteries. “You almost enter into 13,000 contracts with individuals, local authorities or private companies,” explains Francis. “(The condition of UK cemeteries) is one of the biggest challenges that is facing us at the moment. Some are very good, some are very poor.” Dalley adds, “However well we keep our individual headstones, if one is sitting in a wilderness people will always make a comparison between that and our beautifully maintained cemetery in France.”

Last June, commissioners held their quarterly meeting in the UK Area office and witnessed its struggle to keep up with inspections and maintenance. They subsequently agreed to put more money towards hiring staff. While equality of treatment is the commission’s objective, “you can’t turn a churchyard into a war cemetery,” says Parker. “People don’t always understand that.”

Maintenance is considerably less complicated in France and Belgium, which, like many countries, have granted perpetual use of their land to the commission. Occasionally, however, governments need to be reminded of the meaning of perpetual. In 2002, hundreds of war graves came under threat from separate proposals by the Belgian government to extend a motorway through the Passchendaele battlefield and by the French government to build a third Paris airport in the Somme area. Commonwealth governments and organizations such as The Royal Canadian Legion expressed strong opposition to both proposals. Parker says a study of the motorway proposal is to be conducted in Belgium, and that the CWGC will be part of the committee to review it. As for the airport, a newly elected French government took concerns to heart and shelved the proposal.

Nearly 575,000 Commonwealth casualties are commemorated in France, the largest commitment in a single country. The centralized office is located in Arras and it divides its work into mobile maintenance groups. Altogether, the commitment in France employs 420 people. “Each maintenance group has a base site with a senior gardener who might have 15 members of staff and be responsible for 25,000 graves in 20 to 30 different sites,” explains Francis. Each site has all the equipment necessary for maintaining the cemeteries, such as mowers and aerators. “They load up the vans and off they go.”

In recent years, staff in France and elsewhere in Europe have had to contend with a changing climate. “We’ve noticed that the weather seems to be getting worse,” notes Francis. “It’s impossible to work in the field when the ground becomes too wet, so the staff really have to be able to adapt.” In 2001, a few sites in France and Belgium lost up to 40 per cent of their plants because of massive flooding. “So you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of plants,” he adds. “It’s a serious thing.”

David Richardson, the horticultural manager for 130 staff within a large chunk of Africa and Asia, says commission staff also have to get creative with their choice of plants due to working in so many different climates. “We won’t end up with Edwardian gardens in the Far East, but you get the same sort of look using different foliage and plants such as royal palms and frangipani.” Some areas, like Thailand, offer astounding gardening conditions. “You put in a stick, and you get this huge tree in two or three years.” Where water is scarce, such as El Alamein in Egypt, the commission opts for sparse planting.

Politics and war also affect the commission’s ability to carry out its work. Outer Area staff are particularly aware of this, and must keep up with current events. That doesn’t always work. Richardson, for instance, found himself caught in Sierra Leone during the violent coup in 1999. For four days, he and other foreigners were holed up in a hotel basement, hearing about the atrocities going on outside and waiting for the United Nations and the British government to get them out. “By the end of the day you were desperate to have a beer, but of course you weren’t because you were thinking, ‘I have to have my wits about me,'” he recalls with a laugh.

The commission occasionally has to suspend its maintenance programs due to war, and resume work when possible. Such was the case with the commission’s cemetery in Hargeisa, Somaliland, which was razed to the ground during conflict with Somalia in the late 1980s. “The whole city was bombed to oblivion,” says Brian Davidson, the deputy director of Outer Area.

The commission has recently been able to return to the newly established country and begin reconstructing the cemetery, putting in new walls, headstones and horticulture. Fortunately, says Davidson, “the assistance of the Somaliland government, which is still in its infancy, is overwhelming: Free importation (of headstones), any permits we require, security at the site. Just ask and it’s there. There’s goodwill across the world for what we do.” Adds Dalley: “We try and keep in touch with the relevant ministries in the countries we visit… because local representation is useful to us.”

This holds true in Iraq. Although the country was pretty well closed off between 1991 and 1996, Saddam Hussein’s government has since allowed the commission to begin restoring the 54,000 graves there, which have been battered by war, acts of vandalism and the elements (the high saline content of Middle Eastern soil causes the porous limestone headstones to disintegrate). In November last year, commission officials visited Baghdad even as the possibility of war loomed. “Given the present climate, it would be rash to go too quickly,” says information director Parker. As such, although Basra and other far-flung sites are in desperate need of work, the commission is concentrating on Baghdad. Fortunately, adds Francis, “most people treat us as what we are, which is a non-governmental organization attempting to carry out humanitarian work.”

Over the past 85 years, the commission has built a reputation for maintaining high standards, particularly at its larger cemeteries such as Brookwood, where every headstone has a floral border, the turf is finely manicured and the memorial gleams. Paul Reed, a military historian and author who conducts walking tours of WW I battlefields in Belgium, says the commission’s work is “fantastic. Wherever you go throughout the world, you see these cemeteries and they’re beautifully tended.”

This reputation comes through hard work and innovation. “We’re forever researching and developing new procedures,” notes Alan Coombe, the CWGC’s director of works. “Every product has to be environmentally friendly and it has to be cost-effective.” In the 1920s, the CWGC was one of the first organizations to use motorized lawnmowers. Today, large sites recycle 90 per cent of their yard waste and many use computer-controlled irrigation to reduce water use. Coombe says the commission has developed some of the best tests and monitoring systems for stone, and has taken the “idiot factor” out of repointing mortar joints by using pre-bagged ready mixes. “We don’t get very many failed joints.”

The CWGC’s headstone manufacturing, based in France, supplies most global sites and uses the latest in technology. In the days before computerization, a skilled craftsman could engrave three of the commission’s unique headstones a day, whereas a computer-controlled machine can now produce up to 15 a day. As legibility of names is paramount, the commission re-engraves headstones onsite where possible. In France and Belgium, well over 7,000 are re-engraved per year. Sometimes though, time and the elements often necessitate outright replacement.

In addition to making sure that the names of world war casualties remain forever visible on graves and memorials, the commission has in recent years employed a different tool for bringing those names into the public domain: The Internet. The commission put its casualty records, or Debt of Honour Register, online in 1998. “In the first week alone,” recalls Francis, “the Web site got four and a half million hits. You couldn’t get an outside line from this office because there were so many people phoning in saying, ‘What’s the Web site address?’ The Web site still averages a couple of hundred thousand hits a week.” This compares with an average of 40,000 phone or written enquiries per year that were received prior to the Web site’s launch.

The commission has also become much more active in getting the word out to the public through media interviews, history programs on television, stands at popular exhibitions such as the Hampton Court Flower Show, and education packs for schools. “We’re tasked with commemorating individuals in perpetuity,” says media officer Francis. “If we’re really going to do that, we have to engage the next generation in what we do.”

Many of those who fought in the world wars never lived to the autumn of their years. The commission is working to ensure that at least their names will live on.