CWGC 100th Anniversary – Part IV
6 July 2017

Having gained official recognition and responsibility for their tasks in February 1915, the Graves Registration Commission set to work with great expediency. Despite entire sections of the country being occupied by enemy forces, Sir Fabian Ware had to begin negotiating with France for the acquisition of lands for burial. The land and care of graves was offered in perpetuity, but the Graves Registration Commission accepted only the land, choosing to keep maintenance of the graves a British responsibility (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15). In cooperation with the French, the cemetery sites were chosen, giving consideration to post-war agricultural needs and proximity to housing. Furthermore, regulations regarding the space between graves and width of paths between rows  were determined, in order to reduce the amount of space taken up by the dozens of cemeteries that would surely occupy the countryside after the war (Summers,  Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).

Lack of adequate darkroom facilities forces a photographer attached to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to use an improvised raft to wash exposed photographic plates in the moat at Ypres. 
IWM, Q 100417 © Jeremy Gordon-Smith.

After gaining official recognition in February 1915, the work of the Graves Registration Commission had become well-known in the Commonwealth, stirring both positive and negative reactions. Although not the Commission’s responsibility, public requests for information and photographs soon followed. By March 1915, Ware agreed to assume this task, and by August, 2,000 photographs depicting four graves in each had been printed, to be dispatched to enquiring relatives. These were sent along with information cards that listed the grave’s condition and directions to the nearest corresponding railway station should anyone wish to visit after the war (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).

Meanwhile, the desire to treat all as equals  in death had drawn the ire of various wealthy and influential families. They rebuked the idea that officers and men should share common graves and many were initially successful in exhuming and repatriating remains to the United Kingdom. These repatriations had largely been carried out clandestinely, as an order banning exhumation had already been issued in March 1915 by the French Army’s Commander-In-Chief Marshal Joffre. In perhaps one of the most macabre aspects of the war, the Graves Registration Commission now had to contend with not just the perils of war, but also clandestine “grave robbers” hired to exhume bodies in the dark of night and sneak them back across the English Channel.

We will look at the conclusion of this debate in next week’s post.