The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
A total of 1.7 million casualties of the first and second world wars are commemorated in
Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and on memorials in 150 countries.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has
world-wide responsibility for the maintenance of first
and second world war Commonwealth cemeteries and
memorials. The Imperial War Graves Commission
(IWGC), as it was originally known, was established
in 1917 under the auspices of Sir Fabian Ware. The
principles of the organisation are that each of the dead
should be commemorated individually by name, either
on the headstone of the grave or by inscription on a
memorial; that the headstone or memorial should be
permanent; that the headstones should be uniform;
and that there should be no distinction made on
account of military or civil rank, race or creed.
Under the terms of the commission’s charter, an
early decision was taken to commemorate casualties
on either a headstone or memorial at or close to the
location where they died. To provide the designs
for the many cemeteries and memorials, the IWGC
invited three of the most eminent architects of the
day, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker and Reginald
Blomfield, to become its principal architects and to
oversee the work of a number of assistant architects.
Many would be based abroad close to the sites of
battle. Although many architects were involved in the
design of the cemeteries, common characteristics were
established from the outset. For example, in addition
to uniform headstones, each site was provided with a
Cross of Sacrifice, a Stone of Remembrance (normally
for cemeteries of over 1,000 graves) and a register
of the war dead (contained in a bronze cabinet and,
in the case of larger cemeteries, housed within a
shelter building). Where local conditions were suitable,
horticulture following the ‘English country garden
style’ would be provided as a complementary setting
for the structural features.
In accordance with the principle of permanence,
durable traditional materials were employed in
construction. There was considerable emphasis on the
use of natural stone, brickwork with lime mortar, oak,
wrought iron and bronze. Although initial construction
costs would have been higher, this was offset over the
life of the materials. This was a particular benefit for
those sites in more remote locations. Architectural
style, often supported by sculpture, avoided morbid
sentimentality in preference to a more timeless classical
route with appropriate dignity and restraint. An
alternative approach, however, may be seen in the work
of Charles Holden (1875-1960), who joined the roster
of principal architects a little later. His designs for first
world war cemeteries eschewed the use of decorative
embellishments and exhibited the more minimalist
functional style being adopted by European architects
of the modern movement. However, overriding
The Hong Kong Memorial
in Stanley Military
Cemetery, Hong Kong,
commemorates by name
941 Chinese nationals who
died while serving with
the Commonwealth forces
during the first world war
and have no known grave,
and 1,494 Chinese dead of
the second world war from
Hong Kong and Singapore
who have no known grave.
The Menin Gate Memorial
at Ieper (Ypres)
concern was to avoid any suggestion of glorification or
celebration of victory.
The nature of trench warfare during the first
world war meant that many casualties were lost
and were unable to be provided with a headstone.
This presented the opportunity for the commission’s
principal architects to design significant memorials.
The best known of these include the Thiepval
Memorial (commemorating 72,000 casualties) and the
Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux
(commemorating 10,700 casualties), both by Lutyens.
The Menin Gate at Ieper (Ypres) (commemorating
over 54,000 casualties) by Blomfield and the Tyne
Cot Memorial (commemorating 35,000 casualties) by
Baker are also well known.
Naval casualties lost at sea were commemorated on
memorials designed by Sir Robert Lorimer located at
the ports of departure, including Chatham, Portsmouth
and Plymouth. The same architect designed the
Cape Helles memorial overlooking the Dardanelles
to commemorate 21,000 casualties of the ill-fated
Gallipoli campaign. To accommodate additional names
of seamen lost during the second world war, UK naval
memorials were extended by Sir Edward Maufe.
Merchant marine losses are recorded on the Tower Hill
Memorial, also designed by Lutyens.
The large numbers of airmen (20,000 casualties) lost
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a five-year horticultural renovation programme was
implemented. By 1950 this horticultural neglect had
largely been addressed but there were structural
repairs to be made. These, together with the backlog of
maintenance tasks from before the war, took a further
10 years to complete.
The civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s left
the war cemetery at Beirut virtually destroyed. More
recent religious unrest on the Indonesian island of
Ambon resulted in the Cross of Sacrifice being blown
up. As recently as April this year, both the Cross of
Sacrifice and the Stone of Remembrance at Gaza
suffered a similar fate. Because of pervading religious
intolerance, it is unlikely that the cross features at these
locations will be replaced.
When originally constructed, many of the
commission’s cemeteries and memorials were located
in isolation, away from towns and urban bustle. This
helped to engender the tranquil atmosphere that
characterise the settings of many of these cemeteries
and memorials. In the intervening years urban
encroachment has in many cases engulfed the site
and eroded this atmosphere. While there is little the
commission can do in response to this, the use of
strategically planted trees can help to offset negative
effects and so help to maintain the former character
of the site.
There are other more pragmatic or legislative factors
that can influence the original design of commission
sites. In response to the requirements for increasing
staff welfare standards, the need for a high-quality,
on-site facility building and equipment store is now
accepted. When this can be provided in a horticulturally
screened area, with minimum effect on the original
design, it can be a simple utility building. Where this
is not possible and the facility must be located in a
more visible location, it becomes a priority to provide
a design that will retain close compatibility with its
The commission has recognised the need to provide
accessibility to its sites for visitors with mobility
difficulties. Structural modifications have been made
to accommodate this. In a similar way, the increasing
demands of health and safety legislation often impose
changes totally unforeseen when the cemeteries were
All of these factors can contribute to the erosion of
the designer’s original concept. Whenever changes are
proposed, such as new building work or significant
horticultural changes, a form of internal planning
permission is required to ensure the changes are
introduced in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
Any proposed alteration will be subject to a thorough
in-house appraisal before it is sanctioned. In a number
of cases the agreement of the local authority or other
external body will also be required, especially when
sites have listed status. The overriding consideration
is to preserve the special character that makes each
commission cemetery or memorial a unique place of
tranquillity and reflection.
Religious unrest on the
Indonesian island of Ambon
resulted in the Cross of
Sacrifice being blown up.
during the second world war necessitated a dedicated
air force memorial. Located at Runnymede in Surrey,
this too was designed by Maufe.
On a smaller scale the work of providing memorial
commemoration for the two world wars continues
today. The new Hong Kong Memorial to 2,500
predominantly Chinese casualties, inaugurated at
Stanley in May 2008, is one example of this.
The work of replacing headstones (approximately
4,000 worldwide annually) and stone memorial panels
is continuous. Erosion and deterioration, vandalism,
natural disasters or the need to make changes to
headstones or memorial panels means that the task of
commemoration is never complete. This ensures that
the commission’s centre of in-house production at
Arras in France remains fully committed.
The commission recognises the significance of the
contribution made by its early designers and strives to
maintain the cemeteries and memorials as originally
intended. This seems simple enough, but external
factors sometime challenge this. Rising road levels as
a result of resurfacing adjacent to cemetery entrances,
resulting in reversed drainage gradients, is common,
especially in France and Belgium. It usually requires
sensitive modification of the original entrance design.
The complete relocation of main entrances has also
been necessary where roads have been widened to cope
with increasing levels of traffic, resulting in danger to
both visitors and staff. Erosion of the coastline in
Gallipoli has required the addition of coastal defences
to protect a cemetery close to the water’s edge.
Climate change is increasingly affecting the types of
horticulture it is possible to maintain.
In other more extreme cases, commission cemeteries
may be affected by civil unrest or war. Commission
sites in European countries under enemy occupation
during the second world war had no access. Gardening
staff were either evacuated to Britain or interned during
the confusion of the advancing German invasion.
While some staff were allowed to continue working by
declaring neutral Irish nationality, the vast majority of
cemeteries were not maintained throughout the years
of occupation. Consequentially, following liberation,
Barry Edwards is
an architect with the
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