Remembrance Day: What to do with the dead? The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Gen. Sir Fabian Ware, co-founder of the Imperial/Commonwealth War Graves Commission. (Photo by Bassano, vintage print, Oct. 27, 1916)Gen. Sir Fabian Ware, co-founder of the Imperial/Commonwealth War Graves Commission. (Photo by Bassano, vintage print, Oct. 27, 1916)
Major C.E. Sutcliffe, Canadian Infantry and Royal Flying Corps. (Photo courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada)Major C.E. Sutcliffe, Canadian Infantry and Royal Flying Corps. (Photo courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada)
On the Canadian Virtual War Memorial website the caption for the photo of the Durie headstone,right, reads that Capt. Durie “was originally buried in France, but re-interred in the St. James Cemetery (Parliament Street) Toronto in 1925. The story behind this reburial has been the subject of recent study… This marker is on the ground next to the larger family memorial , left. (Photo courtesy Canadian Virtual War Memorial website)On the Canadian Virtual War Memorial website the caption for the photo of the Durie headstone,right, reads that Capt. Durie “was originally buried in France, but re-interred in the St. James Cemetery (Parliament Street) Toronto in 1925. The story behind this reburial has been the subject of recent study… This marker is on the ground next to the larger family memorial , left. (Photo courtesy Canadian Virtual War Memorial website)
Capt. Durie “was originally buried in France, but re-interred in the St. James Cemetery (Parliament Street) Toronto in 1925. The story behind this reburial has been the subject of recent study… This marker is on the ground next to the larger family memorial. (Photo courtesy Canadian Virtual War Memorial website)Capt. Durie “was originally buried in France, but re-interred in the St. James Cemetery (Parliament Street) Toronto in 1925. The story behind this reburial has been the subject of recent study… This marker is on the ground next to the larger family memorial. (Photo courtesy Canadian Virtual War Memorial website)

By T.W. Paterson


In last year’s Remembrance Day edition historian T.W. Paterson explored the aftermath of war for those who were involved and for those who lost loved ones. For many veterans and their families, there was no ‘peace,’ no return to life as they’d known it before the war.

For them there was no statute of limitations on their grief or sense of loss — no, what we’ve come to term, ‘closure’.

This year, T.W. looks at the origin of Remembrance Day and how Canadians and other Commonwealth nations have come to honour their war dead since 1917.

He also wishes to thank Mike Bieling and the Cowichan Valley Archives for their invaluable assistance in compiling this Remembrance Day edition of the Citizen.


‘In Perpetuity’ – the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

What was originally known as Armistice Day marked the end of hostilities, by truce, of the First World War at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. For two minutes only — not a 24-hour holiday as it is now — time stood still as much as was practicable, as British Commonwealth nations came to a virtual halt.

Two minutes of profound silence that many of those who experienced it say had more emotional impact than the way it’s practised now — a statutory holiday preceded two weeks before Nov. 11 with poppy sales followed by ceremonies at various cenotaphs, memorials and churches.

By mid-day, it’s over for another year.

But what of between Remembrance Days? Are Canada’s war dead filed away or does Canada continue to honour its casualties of the First, Second and Korean wars, and succeeding peacekeeping missions, between each Nov. 11?

The answer is, yes, very much so.

Canada and her ‘British Empire’ allies of both world wars share a year-round, duty-impelled mission that has been colloquially described as “the single biggest bit of work since any of the pharaohs!”

Despite its name, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s reach is global: 1.7 million individuals at 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories. (In Great Britain alone there are more than 300,000 British and Commonwealth service personnel graves at more than 12,000 locations.)

World-wide, it’s a task that requires a multinational and multilingual workforce numbering approximately 1,300, most of whom are gardeners and stone masons.


How it all began

Initially, the appalling death count of the First World War posed an unforeseen logistics problem to all combatants: what to do with all the dead? And how to distinguish them by nationality? No thought had been given to their proper burial, and most casualties were buried by their comrades more or less where they fell, marked with little more than an upended rifle, helmet and dog tags or an improvised cross.

‘Remembrance,’ as we know it today, was well in the future.

Not until three years into the conflict was a program for proper burials created, thanks to a middle-aged British army officer, Fabian Ware. An educator, journalist and business executive in peacetime, at 46 he was considered too old for active service and he became commander of a mobile Red Cross unit.

He was appalled by what he saw in the battlefields.

Never had so many been killed in modern warfare. With no organized way of burying the dead there was no recording or marking their hastily dug graves — if they were buried at all, many being beyond reach in no man’s land that separated the front lines for months, even years, during the static trench warfare.

War’s end also concerned Ware: what of the Allied soldiers killed in France and Belgium? The solution, he came to believe, was to create an independent organization that would “reflect the spirit of Imperial cooperation evident in the war and the permanence of commemoration”.

With the encouragement of the Prince of Wales he submitted a memorandum to the Imperial War Conference in 1917 suggesting that such an organization be created. With unanimous approval, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter on May 21, 1917, with the Prince as president and Ware as vice-chairman.

According to the CWGC website, “The Commission set the highest standards for all its work. Three of the most eminent architects of the day, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Hubert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield were chosen to begin the work of designing and constructing the war cemeteries and memorials. Rudyard Kipling [who’d lost his own son in the war] was tasked as literary advisor to recommend inscriptions…”

A unique approach to this monstrous task was the decision that the dead would be buried where they fell. (This isn’t to be taken literally; it means that cemeteries would be established where in many cases there had already been multiple burials because of a battle or battles, or where the front lines had stalled for long periods of time.) There would be no repatriation of remains — and a standard headstone rather than a cross would be erected for each grave. “In all cases no distinction would be made between those lost — as their sacrifice had been common, their commemoration would be common also.”

The first task, thought by some to be an impossible one, was the identifying of hundreds of thousands of the dead, many of whom had been buried in the field or whose war records were inaccurate, incomplete or missing entirely.

From the start, however, there was a problem with inclusion, what the CWGC has tactfully termed, “entrenched imperial attitudes towards some of the peoples of the empire”. This was when the “sun never set” on a global British Empire which included countries of colour, (and France’s African colonies, for instance) some of which, despite their mixed ethnicity and religion, were even then contributing their manhood to the war.

In short, the CWGC continues, “the very idea of commemorating all the dead in the same way was considered controversial.” There was another obstacle: some families “maintained their own ideas of how they wanted to mark the graves of their loved ones and were desperate to bring them [home]. They railed against the Commission’s policy of non-repatriation. For others, the decision to cater for different religions caused anger from a predominantly Christian Great Britain. A petition of more over 8,000 signatures was raised to register protest at the decision to use rectangular headstones rather than cruciform shaped markers.”

The Commission reaffirmed its commitment to its vision of unity through common sacrifice but was not altogether successful in practice. As the CWGC candidly admits, “the outcomes of this work were not always as uniform or equal as the organization had promised”.*

(I shall return to this.—TW)

What followed was what has been described as one of the largest building programs ever seen — the 20-year-long task of creating cemeteries and memorials that wasn’t concluded until a year short of the Second World War. When the work had to be started all over again.


Everyone accepts that the First World War ended with Armistice in 1918; that’s why we have Remembrance Day on Nov. 11.

Technically speaking, this isn’t so. Yes, the fighting stopped at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.

But the actual date of war’s end, so far as the historical record goes, is Aug. 31, 1921.

When the British Parliament passed the Termination of the Present War (Definition) Act 1918, it gave discretion to His Majesty in Council to declare the date of the termination of the war. “Consequently, war with each of the Central Powers ended close to the date of the ratification of the various peace treaties [at Versailles].” That’s why the CWGC’s mandate includes those who died on active service or as a result of their war wounds up to Aug. 31, 1921.

*Just two months ago the CWGC updated its response to “Historical Cases of Non-Confirmation,” the contentious issue of discrimination based upon colour and religion that raised its ugly head in 1917 and is noted earlier. In brief, the CWGC has “actively taken steps to right those historic wrongs and establish a road map to deliver upon the committee’s 10 recommendations…

“A dedicated working group…will oversee and manage what will be an extensive programme of works over the next five years and beyond” in partnerships with Africa, India and the United Kingdom. An initial budget of 5.2 million pounds has been allocated to the project although it’s anticipated that more money will be required for the construction of new commemorative sites. To date, the names of 5.890 men, mostly from East Africa, have been found in the National Archives and are being checked for confirmation and commemoration, and “a newly revised Commemorations policy is now being used that provides greater flexibility for adjudicating these cases”.

The CWGC concludes, “…These are just the first steps in righting historic wrongs but we are…confident that this is a promising start, that we are already making a difference, and that every name found is a small victory on the road to remember ALL those who died and served in the World Wars.”


Chinese not included

All well and good — so far as it goes. But it completely overlooks the contributions of 140,000 Chinese nationals who were recruited by the British and French governments to free their own men for combat. (Not to mention 300,000 ‘colonial’ civilian workers who’d already been put to work from Egypt, Fiji, India, Malta, Mauritius, Seychelles, the British West Indies and South Africa.)

Originally neutral, China entered the fray against Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1917.

Lured by wages greater than could be earned at home, volunteers of the Chinese Labour Corps made the three-month-long journey to France via the Pacific, 81,000 of them landing at Victoria and crossing Canada by rail. Because of the British Columbia government’s virulent and established anti-Asian policies, they were landed at the former William Head quarantine station in secrecy.

After the war, more than 40,000 returned home via Halifax and William Head where they were caught by the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic then sweeping much of the world; 21 died and, according to Wikipedia, were buried in unmarked graves. The single known Canadian exception is that of Chou Ming Shan who’s buried in Petawawa, Ont.

Their contribution to the eventual victory of the Allies is immeasurable, it being noted that they performed essential work supporting front line troops; they unloaded ships, built dugouts, repaired roads and railways, dug trenches, filled sandbags, worked in armaments factories, naval shipyards and, after the war, cleared mines and recovered bodies. All for the pittance of one-three francs per day while never being allowed to fraternize with the locals.

Under these circumstances, “Men fell ill from poor diets and the intense damp and cold and on occasion they mutinied against their French and British employers or ransacked local restaurants in search of food…” Their care was said by a British army officer to have been worse than that of prisoners of war.

Astonishingly under the circumstances, as many as 7,000 settled in France, mostly in Paris. The last survivor, Zhu Guiseng, died in La Rochelle in 2002 at the age of 106 years. He’d also served in the French army during the Second World War!

Also noteworthy is the fact that Liu Dien Chen, First Class Ganger, was recommended for the Military Medal for rallying his men while being shelled, in March 1918. Because of a ruling that members of the Chinese Corps weren’t eligible for the MM, he was given the Meritorious Service Medal. By war’s end, four other CLC members had been so honoured. The British government eventually issued the bronze British War Medal to all CLC members who’d served in a war theatre.

Most of the 2,000 CLC’s recorded casualties were victims of the flu pandemic but Chinese scholars have since estimated that the total could be 10 times higher from shelling, land mines, poor treatment and other diseases. Ten to 15 of the CLC were sentenced to death for murder, four died and nine were wounded when fired upon by British troops when they rebelled against work conditions in December 1917.

The 2,000-odd who died in France and who were classified as war casualties are interred in about 40 cemeteries in northern France and one in Belgium. Most of the graves are at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme, next to a British workers’ camp; not only was this one of the worst battle sites of the war but the site of a cholera outbreak.

There are 842 graves in this cemetery; each stone is engraved with Chinese characters and guarded by two stone lions, a gift from China.

Ironically, the epitaph ‘Faithful unto death’ adopted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is taken from a Chinese idiom.


The ones that got away

As noted, there were those who objected strenuously to their sons being buried on foreign soil no matter that France and Belgium were allies. They lobbied against the CWGC policy of non-repatriation and/or rejected the generic rectangular headstones rather than a cross. Those with the means and the will attempted to spirit the remains of their loved ones from their CWGC assigned graves. At least two succeeded.

It took three attempts, years apart, for the determined Anna Peel Durie to succeed in removing the remains of her son from the Loos British Military Cemetery. Capt. William Arthur Peel Durie, 36, a veteran of the infamous Ypres Salient, Vimy and Passchendaele, was killed in action on Dec. 29, 1917 while serving with the 58th Battalion CEF. That Mrs. Durie succeeded is all the more amazing because the alerted French police had had the cemetery under 24-hour surveillance!

Remarkably, Durie’s final resting place in the family plot in Toronto is his third grave site, he having first been buried in the Corkscrew British Cemetery near Lens, France. But in August 1925, after a dispute with the landowner, all the graves in the Corkscrew Cemetery were moved to Loos British Cemetery. This gave Mrs. Durie yet another opportunity and, with hired local help, she exhumed her freshly reburied son, placed his remains in another coffin and secretly shipped them home to Canada.

The CWGC conducted a thorough investigation but there was nothing to be done.

At least one other soldier, was repatriated by his family. Major Charles Elliot Sutcliffe, 77th Battalion, CEF, the 25-year-old son of F.W. and Anna E. Sutcliffe of Lindsay, Ontario, was killed in action June 6, 1917, while serving with the Royal Flying Corps. According to an unnamed great nephew, Sutcliffe was shot down behind enemy lines and was buried in a privately owned vault in a civilian cemetery at Epinoy, three miles from Cambrai.

“In 1925, contrary to the [CWGC] and in violation of a wartime decree, his body was repatriated to Canada for reburial in the Sutcliffe Family Vault (an exact replica of the vault in France), in Riverside Cemetery, Lindsay, Ontario. There is a lot of mystery surrounding how the family got permission to bring him back to Canada but it is believed they somehow convinced authorities that he was an American[!]”

In her well told 2004 book, The Invisible Soldier (McClelland & Stewart, Ltd.) the story of Mrs. and Capt. Durie, Veronica Cusack notes that the CWGC is convinced that only Capt. Durie and Maj. Sutcliffe were successfully spirited across the [English] Channel and “other tales [are] mere exaggerations of their stories”.


They take their peace on enemy soil

Each November the television screens and newspaper pages are filled with news clips and photos of European military cemeteries, particularly those in Holland with their garlands of tulips. The U.S. has its own American Battle Monuments Commission which maintains 25 military cemeteries in 10 foreign lands containing an estimated 130,000 casualties. Since the Korean War, however, the American military “tries to bring those who die in service back to U.S. soil”.

Most CWGC cemeteries are in what were Allied and occupied countries in western Europe. A notable exception is Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, the largest Allied military cemetery in Germany. Situated in an ancient forest on the Dutch-German border, it was the scene of heavy fighting in February 1945. The British and Canadians suffered 6,000 casualties but of the 7,654 men buried here, 4,000 are Royal Air Force and paratroopers, killed during bombing missions between 1940 and 1944.

Many of these casualties, including those killed during Operation Plunder, the crossing of the Rhine, and Operation Varsity, the massive airborne operation that supported the Rhine crossing, have been gathered from cemeteries and ad hoc graves from around the region. One hundred seventy-six of the burials are unidentified and the cemetery includes 78 war graves of other nationalities, most of them Polish.

Conversely, the United Kingdom shares responsibility with the Federal Republic of Germany for the care and maintenance of the graves of 2,500 German casualties from the First World War and 3,700 from the Second, within the U.K. More than half of the latter were killed during bombing raids over Britain — the famous Blitzkrieg — and some died while they were prisoners of war, others from the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic before their repatriation in 1919.

The majority of these graves are now in specially-constructed Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery as the result of a 1959 agreement between the two governments. Previously, German war graves were scattered throughout Great Britain. Dedicated in June 1967, this cemetery contains almost 5,000 German and Austrian graves; those that still lie outside Cannock Chase are interred within established war graves plots maintained by the CWGC.

An exception are those buried at Fort George Military Cemetery on Guernsey, the British Channel Islands having been occupied by German forces during the Second World War. Germany also has a dedicated cemetery for sailors at St. Brelade’s Church on Jersey.


‘The Germans’ also remember

Years ago I knew a Duncan lady whose married name and accent told me she was originally from Germany. I didn’t give it a thought until the day I visited her at her home and was ushered into the living room.

As I sat down by the coffee table my eye was drawn to a large, framed photo over the mantelpiece. It was a black and white, and obviously professionally taken, portrait of a German army officer.

But what made it stand out for me was his officer’s cap bearing the lightning bolts of the SS (Schutzstaffel). Originally Hitler’s personal paramilitary bodyguard, the SS, under command of Heinrich Himmler, became “the foremost agency of security, surveillance and terror within Germany and German-occupied Europe”. The SS ‘saga’ is one of the darkest in modern history.

But the SS officer in the photo in that place of honour over the fireplace was her father. And she’d loved him.


It’s easy for Canadians who read of, know of and visit any of the Canadian war graves in Europe and elsewhere, to forget that these soldiers, sailors and airmen weren’t the only battle casualties.

What of the enemy’s fallen? They, too, had to be interred, often on occupied soil. Who cares for them?

The Germans have their own version of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. According to its website the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge is a “humanitarian organization charged by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany with recording, maintaining and caring for the graves of German war casualties abroad”.

The Volksbund also provides information to relatives on all matters related to war graves, advises public and private institutions, “promotes a culture of remembrance as well as international cooperation in the area of grave maintenance, and encourages young people to come together to learn at the last resting places of war casualties”.

The Volksbund currently has 300,000 “active supporters” and more than one million people “take an interest in the organization and make financial contributions,” including legacies and bequests. Only partially funded by government, the Volksbund also stages annual door-to-door and public fundraising drives.

A charity, the Volksbund was begun in December 1919, just a year and a month after the end of the First World War, for the purpose of locating the bodies, and maintaining the graves, of the huge number of German soldiers who’d lost their lives. By its very name the organization is a citizens’ initiative that represented the entire German nation. By the early 1930s numerous war cemeteries had been created.

Control of the Volksbund was assumed by the National Socialist government in 1933 and during the Second World War all military cemeteries were placed under military control.

From 1946 on, the revitalized Volksbund created more than 400 ‘war’ cemeteries in Germany and, as of 1954, by direction of the federal government, assumed the locating, safeguarding and maintenance of the graves of German war casualties abroad.

At this time the Volksbund cares for 832 cemeteries in 46 countries in Europe and North Africa. Several thousand volunteers and more than 500 salaried employees care for the last resting places of 2.8 million war casualties.

It has not been an easy task, particularly during the Cold War years, in the Eastern-block countries. Since the political thaw, however, despite the bitter memories of occupation for these nations, the Volksbund has been able to extend its work to include 3 million German war dead — almost twice as many as those residing in western European war cemeteries. The major challenge has been that many of the 200,000 known burial places are difficult to locate, have been destroyed, overbuilt or ‘plundered’.

Since 1991, 331 Second World War and 188 First World War burial grounds have been repaired or reconstructed, and almost one million war casualties have been re-interred in 83 war cemeteries. (Repatriation of remains is ongoing.) To safe-guard its work long-term, the Volksbund established the Peace and Remembrance (Gedenken und Frieden) Foundation in 2001.

Particular emphasis is placed on combining remembrance with education: “The staff charged with liaising with the relatives answer around 24,000 enquiries regarding the last resting places of casualties from both world wars every year, and help to uncover the fate of those reported as missing in action.

“The Volksbund also makes information about the graves of almost five million world war casualties available on its website; members of the public can now carry out a grave search online. This…information can be accessed free of charge and is used by more than 100,000 people from around the world every year.”

“Volkstrauertag,” held each Nov. 14, is Germany’s annual day of remembrance with Volksbund-organized commemorative events throughout Germany. It’s described as “a day for mourning the dead that also serves as a reminder of how precious peace is”.


Visitors to First World War German war cemeteries in Europe are often struck by the fact that many of the headstones, both those of stone and wooden crosses, are black, unlike the grey and white monuments that mark Allied graves. The blackened wooden crosses are the result of tar-based water repellent.

The dark headstones are because of a provision in the Treaty of Versailles which formally ended the First World War that German war graves were not to be in white, the symbolic colour of innocence. So, according to Google, “there was little choice left except to use dark grey tones or black, it being unseemly to make graves in other colours”.


Postscript: As a ‘war baby’ I grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in which my father, my uncles and most of the adult men on my street in Saanich had served. The war fascinated me. I read everything I could get my hands on and watched the many movies that were made in those post-war years.

But as I grew older my fascination waned somewhat except for one thing that puzzled me then and puzzles me now, most of a lifetime later: I’m the proud child of a man who served in the North Atlantic with the Royal Canadian Navy. “We” (the Allied nations) had fought a just war against evil. “They,” the Germans and the Japanese, were guilty of committing indescribable atrocities on a scale never before seen in human history.

My point: what if I had been born in Germany, the son of a German soldier, sailor, airmen — Gestapo officer — who had — or had not — served the Fatherland honourably? What if my father had been a war criminal? How would I have felt then?

It’s a shameful legacy that, three-quarters of a century later, German people, few of whom were even alive at the time and who took no active role, are still having to live with. I don’t envy them.—TWP


Honouring those who went missing in action

For all the monuments and memorials to Canadian war dead, within Canada and elsewhere, there is none like the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. It’s massive, it’s impressive, it’s a Canadian icon like no other.

While honouring all Canadians who served during the Great War it bears the names of those who died in France with no known graves.

Vimy Ridge, the site of Canada’s first major First World War victory, and considered to be a pivotal step towards nationhood, overlooks the Douai Plain, about 10 kilometres north of Arras.

In 1920 the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission was established to oversee creation of eight Canadian battlefield memorials in France and Belgium. The Vimy monument was designed by Canadian architect and sculptor Walter Seymour Allward who later said his inspiration for the monument came to him in a dream.

His design was selected from 160 others in a competition held in the early 1920s, work beginning on its construction in 1925. It was unveiled by King Edward VIII on July 2, 1936.

Remembrance Day