The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917 and is responsible for marking and maintaining the graves of members of the forces of Commonwealth countries who died both in WWI and WWII. It also maintains memorials to the dead whose bodies have no known grave and provides records and registers of these burials and commemorations. It ensures that 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never been forgotten. Cemeteries and memorials stand at 23,000 locations in 154 countries.
In 1921, following the end of the First World War, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission built three experimental cemeteries. Over the course of the decade an additional 2,400 cemeteries were built in France and Belgium, while work progressed in Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Macedonia, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
The first memorial to the missing was commissioned and completed was Bloomfield’s magnificent memorial in Ypes, The Menin Gate Memorial, which commemorates the names of more than 55,000 men on 1,200 panels. At the unveiling of the memorial Field Marshal Lord Plumer famously stated “He is not missing, he is here”.
A year after the commission’s programme was completed in 1938, war once again engulfed mainland Europe, forcing the commission to evacuate its staff and leave the cemeteries. The increased use of air power meant that casualties would no longer be restricted to military personnel. Extending its remit at the request of Winston Churchill, the Commission created a roll of honour that commemorated 67,000 civilians who died as a result of enemy action during the Second World War. In 1949 the Commission created the first of 559 new cemeteries and 36 new memorials, including a memorial to the Royal Air Force to commemorate the 20,000 men and women who died in operations over northern Europe and who had no known grave.
In the United Kingdom there are currently almost 13,000 locations commemorating the deaths of over 300,000 individuals; the highest total of world war commemorations in any country other than France.
Today the Commission continues to preserve its cemeteries and memorials and encourage the act of remembrance.
There are a number of obscure sites, including 16 graves in the Maktau Indian Cemetery in Kenya from a small British mounted force ambushed and wiped out in 1915 and the lone grave on the Greek island of Skyros, of the soldier poet Rupert Brooke. On the uninhabited island of Scarp, in the Outer Hebrides, lie the gravestones of two islanders, Deck Hand DJ MacLennan and Pioneer D MacLennan.
Visitors to one site, on the Isle of Islay, will be able to discover more about those who lost their lives in the war by using their smartphones to read the new interactive panels at CWGC Kilchoman Military Cemetery. Individuals can also search the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website for all 1.7 million deaths of the Commonwealth forces who died in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts – with just the surname and the country for which they served, we were able to download the commemorative certificate for two family members who served and died in World War II.
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