Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Commission, originally with "Imperial" in its title was set up by Royal Charter. It has been government policy since World War I to mark in the country of the serviceman's death a grave or headstone. The recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has in most cases seen the return of the bodies of servicemen killed in the conflict mainly as it was feared that the memorials would be desecrated or the actual grave re-opened. The passage of the bodies of service personnel killed in action through the town of Wootton Bassett and the turnout of large crowds marking their respect has become a feature of British life. With cuts in service budgets from 2011 RAF Lyneham ceased to be used for the purpose and RAF Brize Norton will be used for the future repatriations.
The favoured stone was Portland but some of the inscriptions especially the regimental badges weathered badly and it was decided to use a limestone marble from Italy. The "milestone" markers are prepared in a stone works in France. The CWGC employ their own stonemasons and usually have a contract with local authorities or cemetery owners for grass to be mowed regularly and occasional washing down to remove algae etc. The graves or headstones in some cemeteries are lined up in one designated area but in many cemeteries and churchyards the graves are mixed in with civilian graves. Certain indentations such as clipped corners on the upper of the marker indicate an enemy prisoner of war and other variations such as Allied Force such as Russia, Poland etc. It is a long tradition for members of the Royal British Legion and supporters of service families to place a small cross of balsa wood with a red poppy on a serviceman's grave when a visit is made to a cemetery in the UK.
The face of the panel consists of the army. RN, RAF or Merchant Navy badge or crest, the name and number, regiment etc of the deceased, the optional use of a religious symbol and at the lower part the optional use of a phrase or quotation selected by the family. There is one known example where the family of a man shot for cowardice or desertion was asked by a CWGC if they wanted a personal or religious inscription on the marker and the father elected "Shot at Dawn". The government decided that such an emotive phrase would not be used in the future. Various religions such as Islam and Hebrew have their individual religious symbolism displayed on the markers. The New Zealand government decided that the option of having a religious or family's phrase was not offered to families of troops killed in action. In the case of the Christian cross this is either a separate cross engraved above the name of the deceased or in some examples a larger cross with the regimental or service badge in its centre. The lingering effects of mustard gas [in WW1], physical and psychological wounds often meant that service personnel died sometime after the peace treaty had been signed so deaths up to 1921 [WW1] and 1947 [WWII] resulting from war wounds gives entitlement to a CWGC grave.
In cemeteries containing more than 40 CWGC headstones there is a mounted white stone cross with an inverted sword on the cross known as The Cross of Sacrifice. The height varies to indicate the number of headstones, the largest in size being at the CWGC sites in France and Belgium. It has been government policy since the First World War that the bodies of servicemen killed in action overseas were buried in that theatre of war and very few were returned to their native land. However since the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq bodies have been returned to the UK as desecration of the burial sites remain a possibility as the fighting continues.
Apart from the servicemen killed in action the families of the overseas cemetery ground staff who care for the sites are also given the white milestone graves. In some cemeteries and churchyards the war graves are in a designated area but in other cemeteries the graves intermingle with the normal headstones found in a cemetery. in a few cemeteries such as at Netley in Hampshire [site of the former Royal Victoria Military Hospital] German prisoners who died in the hospital share the site with the deceased British servicemen.
In many cases families chose not to use an "official" marker and had the details recorded on a private family grave. Where the detail has weathered badly or very sadly damaged through vandalism, families can still approach the CWGC and they install a "milestone" marker on top of the existing stonework.
©2012-2017. National Federation of Cemetery Friends