OFF THE SHELF A glimpse into the treasure trove of the CWGC’s archive


Within the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) headquarters exists an archive of international importance. Thousands of documents detail how the Commission was created.

CWGC has a rich historical narrative spanning over a century. The archive contains over 320,000 items including original documents, correspondence, architectural plans and photographs, which shape the narrative and bring the individuals, events and discussions that have taken place to life.

The archives are much more than documents, letters, and photographs. They tell us stories and bring alive the unthinkable task the Commission embarked on more than 100 years ago and memories of the two World Wars.

Our collection is full of hidden gems, discover some of our favourites and learn some interesting facts about our archive.

Peter Pan and pealing bells

What connects the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to Peter Pan and pealing bells? Among the thousands of letters and memos we hold are several records from famous playwright, James Matthew Barrie, best known for writing the play Peter Pan.

Our archive contains an original letter, written by JM Barrie to Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens was a distinguished British architect, commissioned by the War Graves Commission to design many of the early cemeteries and memorials of the First World War.

Barrie writes to Lutyens offering his own advice on how the Commission should commemorate the fallen of the Great War. In the letter, dated 1917, JM Barrie proposed there should be a belfry in every Commission war cemetery and that the bells should be rung every evening, the ringing stopping in one cemetery and starting in another to create the effect of one continuous peal.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates George Llewelyn Davies who died aged 21 during the First World War. George, along with his younger brothers were the inspiration for the characters of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.

Our archive maintains more than just paper records

Our archive contains a vast array of objects. This includes over 19,000 black and white and 60,000 colour photographic negatives, several architectural plans and drawings, as well as a number of battlefield artefacts, including a clay pipe, a pocket watch and cap badges.

Within our collection we hold a shovel from 1917, believed to have been used by gardeners in the construction of some of the Commission’s earliest cemeteries.

Journey of the Pocket book Bible

One of the smallest items within the CWGC archive is a Gospel of St John pocket book, owned by Commonwealth War Graves Commission Gardner Edward Hamblen.

There were over 40 million Bibles, Testaments and prayer books distributed by the British and Foreign Bible Society during First World War. A personal copy of the “Active Service’ New Testament was carried in the top pockets of uniforms by many soldiers during the war, and were keepsake gifts for servicemen in the war.

Edward fought extensively on the Western Front and held the rank of Lance Corporal. He survived the war and joined the Commission in 1920, as a storeman and fitter.

His pocket bible survived and is held at the archive in the CWGC’s head office. In the front cover of the book are words printed by Lord Robert. Lord Robert was a hero of the Afghan and Boer wars, well known to the public. The preface is in his own handwriting, making it difficult to read. It says:

“I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity."

The bible measures 12cm in length and 7cm in width and within it contains a pressed flower, believed to be a poppy from the Western Front.

WE'RE nationally recognised

In June 2018, our archive was added to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

The register promotes the sharing of knowledge for greater understanding and dialogue and recognises records of national significance. The Memory of the World (MoW) Programme was established in 1992 in response to the destruction of documentary heritage globally through conflict, lack of funding, and/or neglect.

The Programme’s vision is that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected and be accessible to all.


This letter dated 11 May 1939, was sent by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to Sir Fabian Ware, to congratulate him on the work of the Anglo-German-French Committee, which had been established in 1936, to coordinate the work of the common remembrance of those who died during the First World War between the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

While the tone of the letter is positive, the date is of great interest, as around this time political relations between Britain and Germany had deteriorated immensely as a result of Adolf Hitler’s continued aggression. Even in the face of an impending war the Commission continued to seek to negotiate difficult international relations to maintain its commitment.

Ultimately the outbreak of the Second World War arrived on 3 September 1939, shattering the sense of progress and friendship that had been encouraged through the work of the Anglo-German-French Committee. When the war eventually came to an end in 1945 the Commission returned to work with the Committee and continues to work with its partners today.

On the Radio

The Commission hosted one of the first outside broadcast features with the BBC

Our archive captures the story of remembrance, not just the history of the Commission. In July 1927, the Menin Gate played host to one the first outside broadcast features. Until 1927, a contract with the newspapers had prevented the BBC (then a limited company) from broadcasting descriptions of events in real time as they happened.

This event alone attracted millions of listeners across the channel, provoking a profound national response to this occasion, as people were able for the first time to participate in this monumental ceremony. Our archives included excerpts from newspaper reports of the time, such as the Daily Mail reporting on the length of landline used to carry signals from Ypres to England.

We keep our archive in good shape

Our team of archivists and volunteers ensure our historical archive is properly preserved and looked after, so that this may be used by future generations to support research and encourage learning and discussion. Environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity, must be carefully monitored and controlled. All of our archive material is stored at the optimum conditions.

The higher the temperature, the higher the rate of deterioration of archival material, as higher temperatures accelerate the chemical processes which cause deterioration. When humidity is too low, the archival materials can become brittle and start to crack or split. This is because the air is too dry. When the relative humidity is too high, material absorbs more moisture, causing it to swell and warp.

Many of the paper clips, pins and staples which have been used to fasten papers together have rusted and over time our archive team have been working to replace these with more suitable brass paper clips which don’t rust.

Preserving the past for the future

Over the past year, our dedicated team of archive volunteers have been involved in a project involving the repackaging and digitisation of items from our collection. The resulting digitised content is being gradually added to the CWGC online archive catalogue to facilitate wider access to archive material for the public, whilst simultaneously ensuring the original documents are better preserved.


Images: National Portrait Gallery, CWGC Archive

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