The 21st May 2017 will mark the Centenary of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) it was created by Royal Charter with the Prince of Wales as its first President.

CWGC marks its Centenary with the launch of a series of projects aimed at promoting wider awareness of its mission to commemorate the dead of both world wars in perpetuity. Today, it is one of the world’s largest horticultural organisations with a gardening workforce of more than 850 men and women responsible for the care of more than 1750 acres. CWGC Director of Horticulture David Richardson, said: “Our horticulture has always been an essential part of our commemoration of the war dead – ensuring the cemeteries and memorials are places of beauty and quiet remembrance for the hundreds of thousands who visit them each year. The commission looks after cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 sites to ensure those who died are never forgotten, encouraging “contemplation, remembrance and respect”.

Peter Francis, author of the definitive study ‘Sites of Remembrance: the war memorials of Shropshire’ wrote to me “It is easy to under-estimate the impact of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the social history of the 20th and 21st centuries and in particular our attitude to death and remembrance.” Concerning the war graves in this country he added “Most cemeteries here in Britain have a section set aside for war graves. In Shrewsbury cemetery are the graves of Allied servicemen and women, maintained by the CWGC. Many died of wounds whilst being treated in military hospitals or convalescing at home in World War Two. There are also the graves of German and Italian prisoners of war who lost their lives in Shropshire PoW camps, far from home. All graves are treated with equal respect and maintained in the same meticulous manner. This perhaps is the greatest legacy which Fabian Ware, the driving force behind the Commission and his colleagues have passed down to us today”.

Lack of public awareness of the CWGC’s role may come as a surprise, given that its immaculate cemeteries and memorials are the poignant setting for so many First World War Centenary events. But taking the UK as an example, CWGC’s Director General Victoria Wallace points out: “From its origins during the First World War, CWGC has grown into a global operation commemorating 1.7 million men and women at 23,000 sites in more than 150 countries. This is the most extraordinary international treasure. It’s not just a British organisation. In fact it’s one of the key things we need to take from this Centenary. It is a Commonwealth organisation. Not the Commonwealth as we understand it today, but anyone who fought for King and Empire as it was back then, in the First and Second World Wars.”

“It’s a really sad fact that only about 35 per cent of the British population know who looks after the war graves. What we have to do is re-engage communities and ensure that for the future, CWGC is not only known but it’s valued. ”
The Centenary programme includes a relaunched website with interactive features, a new Commonwealth War Graves education charity, a supporters’ group, and a centenary exhibition.

Most appropriately CWGC will mark its Centenary at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower show in London from May 23-27. Designed by television gardener and broadcaster David Domoney, it will highlight CWGC’s horticultural and artistic traditions, and its craftwork around the world. Domoney said his task was “as big an honour as it is a challenge. Normally you measure CWGC sites in acres so creating something in such a small space has taken some thought. “A visit to a CWGC cemetery often has a strong impact, leaving a lasting impression. My design focuses on the emotional self-awareness of peace, using tranquil planting. His Chelsea exhibit, an 8m x 6m artisan garden, will feature purple alliums, red and burnt orange roses, foxgloves, hostas, ferns, aquilegia and campanula..”

Artwork by kind permission of Domoney Ltd

Perimeter bricks will come from stock used to restore the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. A metalwork arch is inspired by the bronze wreath at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. Engraving on 154 metalwork leaves — one for every country or territory in which the CWGC has a site — will be completed by the commission’s masons, with woodwork by its carpenters in Belgium and metalwork by its blacksmiths in France. Two statues, originally part of the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, stand guard on either side of the entrance.

OTHER INITIATIVES

*A Centenary exhibition at Brookwood Military Cemetery (above), CWGC’s largest site in the UK. Entitled For Then, For Now, Forever, it will run from May 20-November 19 at Brookwood, near Woking, in Surrey. Volunteer guides are being recruited.

*A new website, launching in May, with a mobile-friendly design. New features will allow the public to add photos and other information to casualty entries, revealing more of the personal stories about those commemorated.

*In a new venture, CWGC will establish a charity and a supporters’ group in summer 2017. The new Commonwealth War Graves Foundation (CWGF) will fund raise for education and community engagement programmes. The Supporters Group aims to build a global community, helping CWGC with its mission to remember the war dead forever.

*Recruitment for a paid internship scheme has already begun. The interns will welcome 4,000 descendants to the forthcoming Third Battle of Ypres/Passchendaele Centenary commemorations at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium on July 31.

*The Tower of London Poppies installation Wave will be displayed at the CWGC Plymouth Naval Memorial from August 23-November 19. The presentation is part of the poppies’ tour organised by the UK’s 14-18 NOW cultural programme. CWGC is also planning new community engagement and education projects supporting its work in Southwest England. More than 7,250 sailors of the First World War who have no grave but the sea are commemorated on the Plymouth Memorial, one of three identical monuments at British naval bases (the others are at Portsmouth and Chatham).

*Hold High the Torch, a global commemorative event on November 10-11, aims to create a wave of light embodying the eternal flame that has been CWGC’s defining image for 100 years. Starting at Niue Island in the South Pacific, it will culminate in London on Armistice Day at an England v Argentina rugby match, and the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance.