Many people do not realise the magnitude of the Western Front battles until they see the rows and rows of headstones commemorating the young men and women felled in the global conflict.
Across the Somme, some 150,000 Commonwealth service men lie buried in 250 military and 150 civilian cemeteries.
The cemeteries and memorials built and cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission across the Somme are a lasting reminder of the human cost of the fighting in the region.
The Thiepval Memorial is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world. It bears the names of more than 72,000 men of the forces of the United Kingdom and South Africa who died in the Somme sector between July 1915 and March 1918 for whom there is no known grave – more than 90 per cent of them during the 1916 battle.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917 as a ‘permanent Imperial Body with the duty of caring for the graves of … the fallen’, with lands granted in perpetuity through the generous provision of foreign governments.
The Commission was largely the creation of one man, Fabian Ware (1869-1949), a school teacher and editor who volunteered to serve with the British Red Cross in France.
In the course of his work, treating the wounded and delivering bad news to relatives, Ware marked graves with a name and wooden cross. He foresaw that, given the proximity between France and Britain that pilgrimages would begin soon after the war ended.
At the same time, there was growing pressure on the home front for something to be done about the graves of thousands of Imperial soldiers who were dying in France and Belgium.
The Graves Registration Commission came into being in 1915, making headstones more permanent and handling a flood of inquiries from soldiers’ next of kin.
Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for the graves and memorials of almost 1.7 million service men and women who died in the two World Wars, at 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries.
It has become one of the largest horticultural organisations in the world. In Western Europe alone, the Commission employs 400 gardeners.
Special teams re-engrave thousands of headstones in situ to ensure the names of those who died are legible and will never be forgotten.
The Commission has a centre at Beaurains, near Arras, which manufactures new headstones for placement throughout the world.
Stonemasons, blacksmiths and joiners ensure that memorials, sculptures and features are kept in good order by working to a cycle of regular maintenance.
The cost of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is shared by six member governments – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, South Africa and the United Kingdom, in proportions based on the number of their graves.
The work of the Commission is guided by fundamental principles:
- Each of the dead should be commemorated by a name on the headstone or by an inscription on a memorial.
- The headstones and memorials should be permanent.
- The headstones should be uniform.
- There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.
From time to time, the remains of soldiers who died on the battlefields are discovered. When this happens, each person is given a dignified burial at one of the Commission’s sites and, where possible, this is close to where they were found and alongside their comrades or unit.