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FROM RECOVERY TO REMEMBRANCE The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

During the First World War, men and women from across the world served with the forces of the British Empire on land, at sea and in the air. The death toll was unprecedented. In the aftermath, the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission (IWGC) was tasked with commemorating 1.1 million Empire dead.

From Recovery to Remembrance explores the challenges faced by the IWGC after the war. With competing creative visions and external pressure to rebuild quickly, we reveal the behind-the-scenes story of how the Commission shaped the landscapes of remembrance we see today in Ieper and around the world.

Through never-before exhibited historic documents from the Commission’s archive collection and artefacts recovered from the former battlefields, this exhibition gives a powerful insight into the extraordinary efforts that were made to identify, bury and commemorate the dead.

Hallowed Ground

The forces of the British Empire suffered over half a million dead, wounded and missing in the fighting at Ypres during the First World War. Ypres was a lynchpin to operations on the Flanders front and five great battles raged around the city during the war. People from all over the world served here and the communities from which they came would have been touched by the terrible news from ‘The Salient’. It is no wonder that Ypres came to be a sacred and hallowed place, and a focal point for a nation and an empire’s grief.

Many who died could not be reached during the fighting and, at the end of the war, tens of thousands of men lay unburied on the battlefields. After the Armistice in November 1918, work began in earnest to recover the dead and provide them with a fitting burial in one of the formal cemeteries that were being constructed under the direction of the IWGC.

But the process of recovery and identification would not be easy...

Searching for the Dead

For three years after the end of the war, Grave Registration Units scoured the landscape for remains. Dividing the battlefield into search areas, exhumation companies would pace the ground looking for the dead. Tell-tale signs such as rifles or protruding stakes, or more subtle indications such as the discoloration of grass, could indicate the presence of a body. Once recovered, the remains would be placed in a cresol-soaked canvas bag and searched for any objects that could possibly help to identify them – objects like the ones you will see below.

Sometimes identifications were made – an identity disc or a personal object engraved with a name could provide conclusive evidence. For most, no identification was possible, and they would ultimately be laid to rest under a headstone simply engraved: ‘Known Unto God’. From September 1921, the responsibility for newly discovered remains was transferred from the military to the IWGC, a role which, supported by the Belgian authorities, it still performs to this day.

the generic

Military objects like these littered the battlefields at the end of the war and are still commonly found today. When they are discovered with a body, they often provide only the barest information about the casualty – perhaps the nationality or a clue to date of death, based on the manufacturing dates of the equipment. The condition of discovered artefacts depends upon local environmental and soil conditions. Metal deteriorates quickly in wet soil, while other items like leather and wood are preserved. This metal helmet was found in dry soil and so has survived well.

The smallest

These are some of the most common items recovered when a casualty of the First World War is found: coins, buttons and regimental insignia. They often help identify an individual’s nationality or regiment, but rarely give enough clues to provide an identification. These items were recovered with the remains of an Australian soldier discovered in the Ypres salient in 2015.

The day-to-day

Day-to-day objects are often found with remains. While these offer little information regarding an individual’s identity, they provide an insight into everyday life on the Western Front. The toothbrush, toothpaste tube, button polisher guard and water canteen seen here speak of the daily battle soldiers faced to stay clean in the trenches. The small glass ampoule contains iodine disinfectant. Many millions were made but precious few of these fragile items survive today.

The most personal

Sometimes deeply personal artefacts are discovered with remains. Although often heartbreaking, personal effects can be the best way to discover the identity of a serviceman. These four items were recovered from different sets of remains, although only two of these were identified. The ID disc and ring belonged to Sergeant Sylvester Mullen and Private William Arrowsmith respectively, but the identities of the soldier who carried the good luck charm around his neck, or the soldier who kept a locket with a photograph of a loved one in his pocket, remain unknown.

Desolation or Restoration

Ieper will forever be associated with the First World War. Throughout the early 1920s, the IWGC built the permanent cemeteries and memorials that, for many, have come to define this area as a place of commemoration and pilgrimage. Today, it is hard to imagine the West Flanders region without them.

At the end of the First World War, however, there was much debate about the rebuilding of the city, the restoration of the landscape and the building of the cemeteries. At the centre of the debate was Winston Churchill, the British Secretary of State for War, and Chairman of the IWGC at the time. He argued that Ypres should be left in ruins and the surrounding area left desolate as an enduring reminder of the terrible cost of war – an idea which took little account of the wishes of the Belgian people to return home and rebuild their lives.

Ultimately, Churchill’s proposals were rejected by the Belgian authorities and a full restoration of the town was undertaken. However, the names of over 54,000 British and Empire dead were forever incorporated into the very fabric of the town’s medieval walls in the form of the CWGC’s Menin Gate Memorial, and dozens of formal war cemeteries constructed in the landscape.

the desolate landscape

These paintings by Evelyn Oswald, the wife of the IWGC Financial Controller, Colonel Christopher Oswald, show the desolate landscape created by four years of war. Painted in 1919, they show the destroyed buildings of Ypres, the shell-ravaged fields and a desolate military cemetery, complete with wooden crosses. Remarkably, the CWGC’s office in Belgium is located in Elverdingestraat in Ieper – the very same Rue d’Elverdinghe painted by Evelyn over 100 years ago.

Rue d'Elverdinghe, Ypres by Evelyn Oswald © CWGC
Zillebeke, near Ypres, 1919 by Evelyn Oswald © CWGC

the rebuilding of ypres

Almost as soon as the war ended, the British authorities began to suggest that Ypres should be left in ruins as a permanent memorial to the sacrifice of those who had died defending it.

“no attempt to reconstitute agriculture or industry in this area should be allowed: it should be left entirely as a garden, and as a burial place”.
Letter from Winston Churchill to Fabian Ware, 1919. © CWGC

The kenyon report

This innocuous little booklet written by Sir Frederic Kenyon, artistic advisor to the IWGC and Director of the British Museum, set out the remarkable vision and aims of the Commission. It covers a number of ground-breaking points including: equality of commemoration for all, headstone design, horticulture and the creation of cemetery registers.

The Kenyon Report, 1918. © CWGC

Creating the Cemeteries

This descriptive account of the work of the IWGC was written by Rudyard Kipling, with illustrations by Douglas MacPherson. In contrast to Kenyon’s report, Kipling’s booklet was written with a wide audience in mind, and it was seen by the IWGC as a way of communicating its aims to the general public.

The Graves of the Fallen by Rudyard Kipling, 1919. © CWGC

letters from loved ones

After the war, the IWGC received thousands of letters from bereaved relatives. The tone of these letters ranged from anger to gratitude, and from grief to acceptance. In this exchange of letters, Mrs Sieveking asks the Commission for information on the burial place of her son, Captain Valentine Sieveking, but adds, holding on to hope, that he might still be found wounded in a Belgian hospital. Captain Sieveking’s grave was later found and today he is buried in Zeebrugge Churchyard.

Letter from Mrs Sieveking to the Commission, 1919. © CWGC

Our Work Continues

Today our team of 1,300 staff care for cemeteries and memorials on every continent except Antarctica. From gardeners and stonemasons to historians and archivists, our global family preserves the CWGC’s rich heritage. We still work to recover and rebury more than 30 casualties each year in Belgium and France, ensuring they receive a dignified burial. In 2019 we opened our first visitor centre, The CWGC Experience, near Arras in France, to share our work with the public.