The success of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) lies in the fact that we take it for granted. Wherever servicemen and women have fallen since the end of WW1 the CWGC exists to commemorate their memories in perpetuity. My own experience spans the well-trodden cemeteries of northern France, the shores of Gallipoli in Turkey, the island of Sicily and the remote cemetery of Medjez-el-Bab in the Tunisian hills. Never have I seen a cemetery any less than immaculate.
The book tells the story of the CWGC from its formation and the vast bulk of the book deals with the early years during and after WW1. It’s a revelation; from the tracking of individuals from their temporary graves to the ceaseless arguments with Whitehall over funding. And funding was fundamental to the cost-effective design of the cemeteries and monuments to ensure that they were appropriate and reverential without being ostentatious. While today we take the location of the cemeteries as a given, the book reveals they were anything but. The battlefield was a moveable feast with some temporary cemeteries smashed up by artillery fire.
The scale is daunting. In 1919 the Commission estimated there were 500,000 graves and 1,200 in France and Belgium alone. Worldwide there were 180,000 identified graves but a staggering 530,000 whose location was not yet determined. The book reveals that the situation was occasionally clouded by relatives making their own arrangements to bury or repatriate the dead. We learn too of the Commission’s insistence that there would be no distinction in death between the wealthiest officer and the poorest private.
On November 11 we remember the fallen to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. But there is another debt and that is to the past and present personnel of the CWGC who continue to toil selflessly and ceaselessly. This is a wonderful book and deserves the widest possible audience.
Insight into those that didn't make it back and their resting places. A comprehensive written work which explains the reasons why each cemetery is laid out in their formats, who designed them puts a different perspective onto future visits.
Purchased as a present for my husband, who has done a lot of genealogy work on soldiers of the First World War and who also gives some assistance in the project to photograph Commonwealth War Graves. He found it well written and absolutely fascinating and kept reading passages out to me. Clearly I shall have to read it next! Highly recommended as a record of one man's determination to do the right thing, even if the subject doesn't immediately seem relevant.