1914: World War I and the creation of the Imperial War Graves Commission

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.

Additional reading

Gibson, E. and Ward, G. K. (1995) Courage Remembered: The Story Behind the Construction and Maintenance of the Commonwealth’s Military Cemeteries and Memorials of the Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, London: HMSO.


Stice, E. (2020) ‘For kin and country: reader responses to the uniformity of British war graves in The Times & civilian practices of wartime citizenship’, First World War Studies, 11:2, 141-160.

Tradii, L. (2019) “Their dear remains belong to us alone”: soldiers’ bodies, commemoration, and cultural responses to exhumation after the Great War’, First World War Studies, 10:2-3, 245-261.

These articles indicate that public response to the work of the Commission was by no means favourable initially.


Rugg, J. (2006) ‘Lawn cemeteries: the emergence of a new landscape of death’, Urban History, 33: 2, 213-233.

This paper traces the impact of CWGC design on British cemetery landscapes.


British History

Search the bibliography for further material on 19th and 20th century cemetery and crematorium history.