Commonwealth War Graves Commission to launch charity in centenary year

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is launching a charity to retain a human connection to its work and spread the message of its purpose in its centenary year.

Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium is the commission's largest. Image: Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium is the commission's largest. Image: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The commission was established on 21 May 1917 to pay tribute to the personnel of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. 100 years after the First World War grieving relatives have been replaced by tourists but some of the CWGC’s immaculately-cared for sites which hardly have visitors at all, especially as many of the war dead never got the chance to have children.

Director general Victoria Wallace said it was a sad fact that only around 35% of the British public know about the CWGC.

"There’s a generation that doesn’t know anybody under these stones. You’re never further than three miles from a war grave in this country but most people never visit a war grave. We want to make sure that the CWGC isn’t just known, it’s valued."

Speaking at a launch event at New Zealand House in central London Wallace said that it breaks her heart that visitors to cemeteries in France leave notes thanking the French government for the beauty of the CWGC’s cemeteries there, saying the CWGC was "not just a British treasure".

"We are the world and we garden the world."

While it is well-funded by the six Commonwealth nations, the money it is granted is earmarked for the care and commemoration of the graves and memorials of the service men and women who died in the two world wars. The CWGC commemorates almost 1.7 million people from the Commonwealth and operates in 154 countries overall. 

Now it wants to tell the world their stories, crowdsource fuller information about the war dead it commemorates, better explain what it is and what it does and get involved in educational and volunteering projects. And it wants to fundraise the money to pay for its plans. For that it needs a separate organisation.

The charity will be called the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation and will be chaired by commissioner – the equivalent of a board member – former Australian government minister Ros Kelly.

The CWGC is also launching a new mobile-optimised website in May, with a new public archive. It wants to build on its extensive database and crowdsource pictures, documents and personal stories from the general public, who will be able to upload items to the entry of each of the commemorated, adding to their stories. It wants to spread engagement on social media by encouraging people to find and take pictures of their graves, linking the physical memorial with the online one.

The launch will coincide with its sponsorship of the David Domoney-designed CWGC Centenary Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May, which the CWGC hopes will succeed in making it much better known. Director of horticulture David Richardson spoke of the "wonderful ambience and spirit" found at CWGC sites, with "a combination of great structure and great gardening". "We’re trying to show the public what we’re doing. Chelsea is unrivalled in terms of TV coverage."

David Domoney's design for CWGC's RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden

Wallace explained how the individual plots of flowers at the foot of each head stone in CWCG cemeteries came about because families of the dead wrote the CWGC to plead with them to have someone place flowers on the far-away graves of their loved ones. The CWGC’s first director general asked Royal Botanic Garden Kew for help and a tradition of excellent horticulture was born. "Horticulture is fundamental to what we do. Of 1400 staff 1200 are gardeners and spreading the message of horticulture and caring through that tradition of looking after the graves. Horticulture is at the heart of what we do"

Other plans include:

A paid internship scheme funded by the UK Government at Tyne Cot and Thiepval to start in July. So far the two places will work on greeting visitors, and offering guided tours but there may be opportunities for horticultural internships in the future.  

  • A centenary exhibition - Then, For Now, Forever to be held at CWGC Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey from 20 May to 19 November 2017, with a touring version planned for Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa
  • Elements of the Chelsea garden to also go on tour
  • A global supporters group
  • The Poppies Wave art installation at CWGC Plymouth Naval Memorial from 14-18, which 7,251 sailors of the First World War who have no known grave
  • New community engagement and education programmes in the South West and with the naval community
  • Hold High the Torch – an initiative to create a ‘wave of light moving across the world’ from Niue Island in the South Pacific to the West coast of Canada to culminate on 11 November at the England v Argentina match at Twickenham Stadium and in the evening at The Festival of Remembrance
  • The physical wave of light will be recreated on social media via a smartphone app

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