With the number of service men and women killed in the Great War, it just wasn’t possible to bring all of the fallen home, and so the Government and the public had to come up with a plan.
When a person dies, if they are buried, this will usually be in their own plot at a cemetery local to where they live or lived and, the gravestone might have details about the person, so that family and friends can visit to remember them. Gravestones in civic cemeteries can often be personalised to reflect the person and their interests and accomplishments.
The war had claimed the lives of over 740,000 British service men and women, and not all of the bodies could be identified.
This made it extremely difficult – if not impossible to bury and commemorate everyone. The question also arose – where should they be buried?
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (or Imperial War Graves Commission as it was named at the time) was set up in 1917 to honour those who died during the First World War.
It pays tribute to the 1.7 million men and women who served in the Commonwealth forces and who made the ultimate sacrifice during the First and Second World Wars
Colonel Sir Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, wrote a report with some recommendations about what these cemeteries should look and after the Armistice, bodies from the battlefield were gathered up and taken to concentration cemeteries, whilst it was decided what to do.
Many people were desperate for their relative’s body to be sent home for a personal burial. This just wasn’t always possible and often it would only be the rich who could afford this. The government agreed that this wasn’t fair and so decreed that bodies would be buried where they had fallen.
Three famous architects were given the job of coming up with designs for cemeteries in France and Belgium. They were – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield. It was important that each featured a Cross of Sacrifice and a Stone of Remembrance to represent those of all faiths and those of none.
As recommended by Frederick Kenyon, simple headstones became the grave markers. Each stone was the same shape and colour so it didn’t matter what the rank of the soldier or how wealthy or poor he was, all were treated as equals. Whether the identity of the solider was known or not, whatever faith they held, or if they had no faith, they were laid to rest together.
Families could choose a short message to be engraved on the gravestone to give each grave a personal touch but they were restricted to four lines.
Each cemetery would have a monument listing the names of those missing, who were known to have died or who were missing in action but whose bodies could not be found.
War Cemeteries can be found all over the world, including here in the UK, these held the bodies of those soldiers whose bodies had been returned to Britain, or who had died of injuries following their return. These are frequently also the resting place of soldiers from the Commonwealth and countries like America and Canada – places often just too far away for bodies to be repatriated.
The building programme to complete the cemeteries didn’t finish until nearly twenty years after the end of the war.
They were designed to be peaceful places – like an English Country Garden. Well-tended, with beautiful borders and pathways, with shady spots to sit and interesting statues and other features. They weren’t meant to be gloomy places – they were designed to be for the living.
BROOKWOOD MILITARY CEMETARY
In our series, Edward and his father visit Brookwood Military Cemetery, a war cemetery in the UK.
Located 30 miles from London in Surrey, Brookwood Military Cemetery is the largest CWGC cemetery in the United Kingdom. The cemetery contains the graves of more than 1,600 servicemen of the British Empire in the First World War and over 3,470 from the Second World War.
Brookwood Military Cemetery lies adjacent to Brookwood Cemetery (The London Necropolis), a vast space which covers 500 acres. In 1917, an area to the north of the cemetery was set aside as Brookwood Military Cemetery for men and women of Commonwealth forces who died, many of battle wounds, in the London district. This site was further extended to accommodate Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War.
The cemetery shares many of its architectural and horticultural features with other Commission cemeteries, particularly those in France and Belgium
There is a large Royal Air Forces section in the cemetery and the Air Forces shelter building nearby has a register of the names of those buried in the section.
Click to find out more about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The Great War – Through a London Child’s Eye is supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.