As we approach the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, Julian Evans, International Director of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and former Director of Protocol at the FCO, writes about the work of the Commission
Seventy-five years ago on 8 May, the World War II in Europe came to an end, leading to scenes of wild celebration around the world. The coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions have resulted in the cancellation of major public events planned to mark this momentous anniversary, but perhaps we can all individually pause and reflect on the significance of that day in 1945 and the human consequences of the years of conflict which preceded it, for World War II was the most devastating the world had seen.
When the guns had fallen silent the task of burying the dead and constructing cemeteries and memorials got underway. 600,000 servicemen and women from today’s Commonwealth had died in the war and the organisation responsible for their commemoration was, as for World War I, the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), which became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in 1960. But how did this organisation come into being and how is it relevant today?
The key figure was Fabian Ware, a successful businessman and educationalist, who volunteered for the British Army in 1914 but was considered too old at 45. Instead, he was appointed head of a Red Cross mobile ambulance unit in France. Increasingly concerned that graves of those killed were not being properly registered, his unit started doing so, and by 1915 had been absorbed into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission. In 1917, this became the Imperial War Graves Commission, with representation and funding from the UK, Australia, Canada, India, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa. With the exception of Newfoundland, which became part of Canada in 1949, the composition of the CWGC today is the same with the member governments represented by your diplomatic colleagues, their High Commissioners to the UK. Other countries formed similar organisations and we work closely with several of them including the American Battle Monuments Commission and our European counterparts.
The task of finding and burying the Commonwealth dead of World War I was monumental. Over one million servicemen and women had lost their lives. The conflict had been global, not just confined to the Western Front. About half of those killed could not be identified or their bodies could not be found. Access to some battlefields, like Gallipoli, was not possible until years after the fighting had taken place there. But construction began and the last memorial was completed in 1938 – ironically a year before the start of World War II. This war was even more global than the First, which explains why the CWGC maintains 23,000 cemeteries, burial plots and memorials to the missing in more than 150 countries and territories around the world, 12,500 of them in the UK.
The IWGC adopted policies at the very beginning that explain why our cemeteries look like they do and why, if you visit cemeteries in the UK, you can find significant numbers of non-British servicemen and women from the Commonwealth. Everyone was to be treated the same, so all the headstones are the same shape (not a cross like many other countries given the religious diversity of the then British Empire) and size, irrespective of rank. And there was to be no repatriation of bodies (a logistical nightmare and against the principles of equality) so a British soldier killed in France would be buried there, and a Canadian who died in the UK of wounds received in France would be buried here. As you may imagine, when announced 100 years ago, these policies were not universally welcomed!
Despite our title, in some locations the CWGC also has the duty of looking after casualties from countries which are not part of the Commonwealth. These include significant numbers of Gurkha soldiers from Nepal who fought with incredible bravery for the allied cause in both World Wars. And at our largest UK cemetery in Brookwood in Surrey there are around 800 non-Commonwealth graves – Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Belgians, French, and Dutch, but also Italians and Germans. Elsewhere in the UK there are Russians, Greeks, Norwegians and others. It is our privilege to work to support diplomatic missions in the UK, as well as veterans’ associations, at commemorative events at Brookwood or at other sites around the country during the annual Remembrance period or at other key dates in the calendar, such as ANZAC Day in April.
The CWGC is 103 years old this month. When established it was given its mandate in perpetuity; there is no end date to our work. Not only do the families of the dead expect us to maintain the cemeteries and memorials to their ancestors, but it is important that these sites serve as a reminder to us all of the cost of warand as a place of reflection, perhaps best summed up by King George V when visiting Terlincthun cemetery near Boulogne in May 1922; “I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.” In 2017 we set up a charity, the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation, whose focus is on education so that younger generations can learn about the sacrifices made by those who went before.
When embarking on its work after World War I, the IWGC employed the services of some of the most respected architects and writers, including Sir Edwin Lutyens and Rudyard Kipling. The cemeteries and memorials constructed by the CWGC member states are amongst the most dramatic anywhere. I hope that, once the current crisis is over, members of the diplomatic community will find time to visit so I have included photos below of three iconic UK sites as examples.
Given the restrictions of COVID-19, we are launching a virtual Wall of Remembrance. This will be a digital space where those people who cannot access our sites to visit, or lay a wreath or flowers, will be able to leave a tribute to those who fought (and sometimes died) for that peace. The messages themselves can be loaded directly to our website www.cwgc.org or shared with us on social media using the hashtag #ShareTheirStory. The tributes can be anything – ideally short rather than a family history – like a picture, an anecdote or a simple thank you. The person doesn’t need to be commemorated by us either – they can be any stories. We are getting young people involved too as we want them to tell us about why the anniversary is significant. We launch the project today – on 4 May – ahead of V.E. Day and it will continue to Remembrance Day 2020.