THAT no one in England lives more than 3½ miles from graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is a staggering comment on their number and ubiquity. This organisation was established a century ago to create and look after the memorials for British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the industrialised slaughter of the First World War. The CWGC went on to memorialise the dead of the Second World War and, today, its responsibilities are global. It cares for the records, graves and memorials of 1.7 million men and women in about 23,000 locations in 150 countries and territories.
In its centenary year, the Commission has embarked on an important initiative: the creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation. This charity, launched a week ago, aims to keep the memory of those who died in the consciousness of the 21st century. The Foundation’s chair, the Hon Ros Kelly, asks: ‘How can we expect a younger generation to remember those they could never have known?’
Using education and outreach projects, as well as events and an internship scheme, the Foundation aims to introduce a new audience to the stories and memories of the fallen.
Athena welcomes this initiative, but she also hopes that its long-term success will bring with it a fundamental change of perspective in the way we regard the work of the CWGC. The commemoration of the dead from the World Wars still feels tribal, each nation remembering its own. That’s a tendency exaggerated by the organisation of 20th-century war
memorials and cemeteries generally. Indeed, as Gavin Stamp explored in COUNTRY LIFE (Monuments to the dead,
November 8), the CWGC is merely one of the bodies established by the warring powers to bury the dead, each one acting distinctly in a manner shaped by politics, sensibility and experience.
As the events of both wars fade from living memory, however, it would be to everyone’s benefit for these partisan divisions of the dead to survive, but also be subsumed in a broader understanding of the totality of loss they represent. Because, fundamentally, the World Wars were not simply a tragedy for the individual belligerent nations and their populations (though they were that), they were also a calamity for humanity at large.
The inauguration in 2014 of the International Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette set a striking precedent for a memorial that transcended nationalism, bringing together, in equality, the names of the 579,606 people who died in the fighting in Northern France between 1914–18. If we can begin to empathise collectively for such suffering, then the dead memorialised will not have died only for the causes of their own day—right and wrong—but for ours as well.
‘The charity aims to keep the memory of those who died in our consciousness