The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was founded by Fabian Ware and is currently undertaking a project to re-engrave and spruce up by hand all the headstones that it looks after. For World War One alone that equates to nearly 1.3 million names engraved on either individual headstones or on memorials to those who died but who have no known grave. The CWGC carries out its work in 150 countries and the task of ‘freshening up’ each grave or memorial is expected to take 28 years to complete.
Sir Reginald Blomfield, Sir Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, some of the UK’s most prominent designers/architects, designed many of the Commonwealth cemeteries of World War One. More than 1,200 cemeteries were built in France and Belgium alone. 559 were built after World War Two. All the headstones in the World War One cemeteries on the Western Front are made of Portland stone and the original inscriptions on them were engraved to a depth that allowed them to be read at two paces. In the aftermath of the war, families were allowed, for a small fee of 3.5 pennies a letter, to add an extra inscription at the bottom of the headstone.
Fabian Ware was in charge of a British Red Cross unit in France at the start of the war. He quickly realised that modern warfare, as it was then, created an environment whereby many men’s graves could have been lost to posterity. He started recording the whereabouts of as many men’s graves as he could and his task was given official recognition by the War Office. By 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission had been established with a Royal Charter. The Commission’s President was the Prince of Wales. After the war, a decision was taken that no body would be repatriated to the UK and that there should be no private memorials as only the rich could have afforded to do both. It was also decided that all graves would be identical regardless of rank.