World War I brought mortality on a massive scale, creating a ‘vast and severe’ problem of dealing with the military dead. Temporary wooden markers were soon obliterated by successive waves of combat. In 1914, Sir Fabian Ware created a ‘Graves Registration Unit’ within the Red Cross. This Unit became the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1916, and was renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960.
The IWGC is associated with the vast network of war cemeteries established and maintained across the globe. The Commission also had a significant impact on UK deathscapes. Injured combatants who were brought home, or who died whilst serving in the UK, were buried in graves in local cemeteries or churchyards, marked with the characteristic white Portland stone headstone. Sites with 40 or more burials were ordered in a separate section within the cemetery, marked with a Cross of Sacrifice.
The Commission also established a new type of landscape: smooth lawns and uniform monumentation offered an alternative approach to rather more chaotic Victorian landscapes, where kerbsets and grave mounding created acute maintenance issues.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website offers engaging resources to research CWGC sites in the UK. Very little work has addressed the impact of the Commission on local cemetery landscapes. It is possible to visit the CWGC archive in Maidenhead, which contains substantial records including correspondence between cemetery authorities and the Commission on plans to establish and maintain sections.