04:00PM, Thursday 09 February 2017
Peter Francis, the War Graves Commission’s media manager.
In cemeteries in France, Belgium and even further afield sit rows and rows of white headstones where 1.7 million troops were killed fighting in the world wars.
Sitting in beautifully landscaped grounds, some are simply marked ‘unknown’ – bodies that couldn’t be identified among the masses of dead.
But some are inscribed with remarkable detail about those who are buried beneath.
The group responsible for this is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
But it is not always known that the headquarters of the commission, which tends to cemeteries and memorials in 23,000 locations in 154 countries including Singapore and Indonesia, is based in Maidenhead.
“We are on every continent bar Antarctica,” Peter Francis, the CWGC’s media and marketing manager told me when the Advertiser was invited in to find out more about its centenary plans.
The commission sits in an imposing building on the edge of Kidwells Park, off Marlow Road, which houses its archives, enquiries team and even a small museum.
“People might walk past this building and think it is a magistrates’ court,” Peter joked.
The commission has not always been based in Maidenhead. It was founded by Sir Fabian Ware – a commander of a British Red Cross unit – who was inspired to ensure the First World War dead would not be forgotten when he saw how soldiers were being buried during the conflict. His unit began recording and tending soldiers’ graves and, in 1917, he was granted a Royal Charter to set up the Imperial War Graves Commission, as it was then known.
Flash forward 100 years, including extra graves to tend to as a result of the Second World War, and it is now based here in the town.
Peter said: “The commission’s offices used to be in London.
“In World War Two there was a real concern our paperwork and research would be destroyed in the Blitz.”
It was decided to transfer the organisation to Maidenhead, and the commission later moved into its current building in 1972.
Peter talks with great knowledge about CWGC’s history and showed me the small exhibition inside the building which includes a timeline of the organisation, its Royal Charter and old records used by the commission in the past.
It includes one of its headstones and items from soldiers, including a rifle and medals.
Outside its office, the commission runs a huge operation – it mows the equivalent of 1,000 football pitches every week as it tends to its graveyards. Of its 1,300 staff, 850 are gardeners.
The cemeteries are for those who died in battle or those who died of their wounds later, possibly in a different location.
More than 935,000 are identified casualties, while almost 212,000 are unidentified.
Nearly 760,000 names of those missing are inscribed on memorials.
The commission also ensures headstones are maintained, and that those buried beneath have as much information in their records as possible.
The cemeteries are far from complete, however, and even today new casualties of war emerge, with about 30 discoveries a year.
Staff are currently going through some of the commission’s paper archives and digitising them as part of its bid to improve online availability of its records.
Different teams are sited in different sections of the building. The enquiries team deals with all sorts of questions and requests, including about the cemeteries.
The archivists and records team constantly look to improve the information available, and the commission hopes by adding more of its records online, the public will take an even greater interest in the history of the fallen.
With that in mind, it is also backing a number of centenary events this year, including one to mark the First World War battle at Passchendaele.
Glyn Prysor, chief historian, said: “We are really looking forward to commemorating that battle. For me, it is a real privilege for us to be involved.”
He added it was important to connect people to events ‘they may have heard of, but may not know about’ – which, with the myriad of information available on the 1.7 million casualties, is ever more possible thanks to the CWGC’s mission.
Enquiries team ready to help
Anyone can ring up the commission to ask about repairing their ancestor’s grave or adding extra information to records.
Jackie Withers, the enquiries supervisor at the commission, said activity can spike dramatically when the commission gets mentioned on television, and the team can be ‘incredibly busy’.
“People might go to a relative’s grave and realise they have not got an inscription on the headstone,” she used as one example.
“The enquiries team would then get to work to ensure various teams combine to restore the inscription to the headstone.”
Call 01628 507200 to speak to the team.
Wreath inspires new logo design
A new logo will be used by the commission for this year to mark its centenary.
It is inspired by a feature of CWGC’s largest cemetery, Tyne Cot, in Belgium, named after a nearby barn the Northumberland Fusiliers christened as a ‘Tyne Cottage’.
The cemetery was the site of German ‘pillbox’ bunkers and a bronze wreath was engraved on a cross that stands on one of the pillboxes today.
That wreath is used for the centenary logo.
Honouring past rugby players
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been chosen as the Rugby Football Union’s military charity partner for 2017.
Its aim is to highlight the contribution rugby players made during the First and Second World Wars.
Victoria Wallace, the director general of CWGC, said: “We hope rugby fans around the world will be inspired to learn more of past players who made the ultimate sacrifice for their countries in the two world wars.”
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