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Your Relative's CWGC Details Explained

Aircrew Remembered have been contacted many times with questions about the Commonwealth Graves Commission and are pleased that we have been able to make this information available.

The CWGC have since contacted us regarding this page in January 2018, they have endorsed the information that has been clearly described by Aircrew Remembered. We continue to support their great work.

We contacted the CWGC in January 2019 as we would like relatives to be able to place a brief personal message on their great website - we understand that they are unable to add to grave inscriptions - but many are not remembered with a personal message - including all inscribed on the Runnymede Memorial and the many others dedicated to those that have no known resting place. Even those who have a grave, but have no personal message.

They kindly replied: "Thank you for contacting us with your interesting idea. Whilst the CWGC website currently does not have the capacity for a separate area attached to casualty records for people to add words of remembrance, your suggestion will certainly be considered for future development. The CWGC is committed to trying to improve the way members of the public interact with our website content and data and all feedback is therefore appreciated. Thank you once again for taking the time to write to us.

If you feel as strongly as we do regarding this, email them here and advise them on your thoughts!

(Some Information supplied by the CWGC)

Many of the graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Note: Not all relatives of lost servicemen have a Commonwealth War Grave - many chose to have their own family gravestone. These are 'not' maintained by the CWGC, responsibility to maintain these remain that of the relatives.

The blueprint that they follow is 'what was done for one - should be done for all, and that all, whatever their military rank or position in civil life, they should have equal treatment in their graves.'

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (now shortened to CWGC) recommends the use of individual headstones. For those with no known grave, they would now have their names inscribed on a larger memorial near the site of where they fell. Others have described an SP or 'special memorial' which are normally inscribed as 'Buried Near This Spot.' (see below)

They follow that every British cemetery would contain two distinctive memorials. One would symbolise Christian sacrifice, representing the majority religion of the British forces. The other would be a memorial stone, a non-denominational altar, to 'meet many forms of religious feeling.'

Each had to adhere to the brief, the universal principals that would define the British military cemetery.

Most headstones were to be made from Portland Stone - the same material used to build Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. (There are some exceptions to this - for example many in Scotland and Canada use a granite form of stone)

They had to take note of layout guidelines - the Stone of Remembrance had to be placed in the East, the headstones in lines and also facing East.

The report had stated that simple language should be used so that everyone could understand the meaning, regardless of education. This was about equality not just for the dead, but for the bereaved too.

To find the right words for the cemeteries, the Imperial War Graves Commission turned to Rudyard Kipling, whose own son had died on the Western Front and whose body was never found.

Knowing that Kipling had suffered his own loss gives his choice of words an added poignancy. For the Stone of Remembrance, he selected a short phrase from the Bible 'Their Name Liveth For Evermore' For the graves of soldiers whose bodies couldn’t be identified, the words 'A Soldier of the Great War' would be engraved on their headstone, added underneath were the words 'Known unto God' added at the end, each soldier being acknowledged as an individual, a real person.

1: The prominent circle at the top of each headstone shows a national emblem or the regimental badge of the deceased soldier/sailor/airman. Regiments were given input on how their badge was represented but there was emphasis on simplicity of design in order to make them practical and economical to carve. In the days when they were carved by hand, a good stonemason could produce three headstones in a day. Some headstones include an additional message above the badge which identifies the body as ‘believed to be’ the person stated, or else indicates that they are ‘buried elsewhere’. As time moves on, research uncovers new information which sometimes confirms an identity of a lost one - as and when proof is submitted to the CWGC details are amended.

2: Below the badge are the details of the buried serviceman/woman. This usually consists of number and rank, name, military decorations, regiment and date and age of death. Initial discussions saw debate over whether graves should be individualised or whether they should be left generic, to be identified only by number. The former was chosen as it was felt a more appropriate way to commemorate individuals. It also stood as a far more poignant physical memorial for living relatives. The rank shows rank at time of death, many were posthumously promoted.

3: Many headstones also include an icon to identify the religious beliefs of the deceased. British headstones most frequently featured a cross though the family could request it was omitted. Efforts were made to bury soldiers of other faiths in accordance with their religious beliefs too. The Star of David replaced the cross on the headstones of Jewish soldiers/sailors/airman and Muslims were buried facing towards Mecca. On some headstones belonging to soldiers from non-European countries, inscriptions are engraved in their native language.

4: Some relatives were unhappy with the policy forbidding repatriation of remains. To appease them, and acknowledge religious considerations, personal messages became a feature. Families could choose to inscribe a message - often being encouraged to pick lines from a text of prayer. More personal message were also permitted, however the graves commission retained power of rejection and there was a limit of '66 letters'. Personal inscriptions were initially charged at 3 and a half pence per letter, but this was changed to a voluntary contribution after many families were unable to afford the payment. (Does not sound a great deal - but the the average weekly wage in 1940 was around £4.70). This pressure subsequently resulted in a withdrawal of these charges to the next of kin and these charges now being offered as a ‘voluntary’ payment, by this time however many of the poorer families had already been deterred which is the reason behind so many WW1 headstone’s lacking a personal inscription, confusion prevailed until as late as 1927.It also has to be noted that these ‘debts’ were not vigorously chased up by the CWGC. there is nothing on the forms requesting payment up front - simply a promise by the next of kin to pay the amount due at some stage and it seems examples do exist where help was offered with payments.

The Canadian and Australian government’s decided from the beginning not to impose any form of charge for the epitaph lettering and all costs were met by the government. The New Zealand authorities however, stood out against this decision to charge for epitaphs on the grounds that, it being inevitable that not all families could or would be able to afford these charges and so a precedent was set for all, depriving the next of kin any option of leaving an epitaph upon a New Zealander’s gravestone.

5: Plants had to be suitable for foreign soil, with dark evergreen shrubs felt most appropriate. Where possible, it was recommended that English yew trees were planted in cemeteries so that they might resemble British churchyards. Garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and Arthur Hill, the Assistant Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, advised on the planting for cemeteries. Kew Garden authorities recommended that the surfaces on top of graves be levelled rather than formed into separate mounds which would be more difficult to maintain. While it was felt important that flowers did not overshadow headstones, in his report on horticultural design, Sir Frederic Kenyon saw them as an opportunity to add brightness and life to the cemetery.
Sir Frederic Kenyon summed up his vision for the Commission cemeteries in February 1918 thus:

'The general appearance of a British cemetery will be that of an enclosure with plots of grass or flowers (or both) separated by paths of varying size, and set with orderly rows of headstones, uniform in height and width. Shrubs and trees will be arranged in various places, sometimes as clumps at the junctions of ways, sometimes as avenues along the sides of the principal paths, sometimes around the borders of the cemetery. The graves will, wherever possible, face towards the east, and at the eastern end of the cemetery will be a great altar stone, raised upon broad steps, and bearing some brief and appropriate phrase or text. Either over the stone, or elsewhere in the cemetery, will be a small building, where visitors may gather for shelter or for worship, and where the register of the graves will be kept. And at some prominent spot will rise the Cross, as the symbol of the Christian faith and of the self-sacrifice of the men who now lie beneath its shadow.'

I have found a grave in a poor state of repair?

Email or write to the CWGC and advise them. Do not take it upon yourself to carry out work without prior permission. There are many reasons for this, not least the Health and Safety issues. Aircrew Remembered can assist with additional advice and have done on many occasions. The above photograph taken by Aircrew Remembered in May 2017 - details sent to the CWGC with supporting photographs. This sample relates to Sgt George Alfred Chilvers 1664 HCU Halifax V DG282. They have kindly replied in that access has been improved and that the small grave yard has been tidied up - we checked in March 2018, they have, we must add that they have done a tremendous job of it!

I visited the Cemetery and the Gravestone had been removed?

The Commonwealth Graves Commission regularly inspect their cemeteries - anyone who has visited these will notice how immaculate they are kept and quite rightly so. In order to maintain them, at times a headstone may have to be removed for renovation, or perhaps (as we have assisted in the past), update the headstone with corrected information.

When a CWGC headstone is removed for renovation work they are normally replaced with a temporary marker as shown on the left. As you will notice, they are clearly marked with the rank and name of the deceased. This assists relatives visiting the cemetery to show the location. Private headstones are of course not maintained by the CWGC. Should they fall into disrepair, there is nothing that the CWGC can do - it is the responsibility of the family. (See 'scattered War Graves' section below)

We have been contacted on a number of occasions by relatives who wish to have further engraving carried out on the CWGC headstones. This is not normally permitted but they will look at each case and review it. Charges maybe incurred for this service.

Some Details are incorrect on the grave or the website of the CWGC:

An example is that we know the grave marking is incorrect for the date of F/O. Donald Graeme Lane Taylor's death: he was killed in the morning of the 08th February 1944. We are not able to proceed to have this changed as we are not in contact with relatives. Read his tragic story here.

Any application for amendment must be supported by relevant documentary evidence. This can include a service record, birth, marriage and death certificate. They also need to be sure that the certificates you provide refer to the casualty in question. Documentary evidence which links the certificate(s) or service record to the casualty such as a memorial card or obituary notice may be required. An amendment form can then be submitted with the necessary evidence. They do respond with an acknowledgement, but due to the number of enquiries may take several weeks to reply. Aircrew Remembered can assist with additional advice and have done so on many occasions. We must add that the CWGC are very keen to ensure that not only are their records correct and up to date, but they also do make necessary changes to headstones if applicable.

Laying a floral tribute on the grave:

If you are visiting a cemetery or memorial the CWGC are delighted for you to lay a floral tribute. They ask that this is not permanent; it will be removed by CWGC staff once it has faded. If you are unable to visit yourself, you may wish to arrange for flowers to be placed on your behalf. The CWGC is unable to do this for you, but listed below are some organisations that can make such arrangements:

The Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal

Interflora (FTDA) British Unit Limited

Why are there war graves in the UK?

The practice of non-repatriation of the dead which was established during the First World War meant that Commonwealth servicemen and women who died on active service abroad, were buried abroad.

The majority of those buried in the United Kingdom are therefore the men and women who died at 
home in military hospitals. Others may have died in training accidents or air raids, some were killed in action in the air or at sea in coastal waters, with their bodies washed ashore. Civilians killed are not normally provided with a Commonwealth War Grave, but many are listed within the records.

Directly maintained sites:

Five cemeteries in the UK are directly controlled and cared for by CWGC staff and bear the strongest comparisons to those overseas. Between them they contain approximately 8,500 war graves. They are: Brookwood Military Cemetery, Cambridge City Cemetery, Cannock Chase War Cemetery, Newark Upon Trent Cemetery and Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery. The design of these cemeteries allows the CWGC to establish and maintain flower borders and turf similar to those in war cemeteries overseas.

Featured: Scottow Cemetery near Coltishall, Norfolk
Military cemeteries:

Here war graves appear alongside other non-world war service burials. These cemeteries largely remain the property of the Ministry of Defence, with the Commission taking responsibility for the Commonwealth world-war graves. Many of these sites have a similar maintenance regime and commemorative approach to the war cemeteries that we directly control and maintain.

War grave plots:

In both World Wars, land was set aside by cemetery authorities and churches specifically for war burials. There are about 600 of these plots, containing between them 20,000 graves. These plots generally contain horticultural and structural features common to the Commonwealth war cemeteries abroad – including a Cross of Sacrifice or Stone of Remembrance if the plot, or total number of graves, is large enough. Under a new initiative, where there are distinct groups of ten or more war graves in a cemetery, the CWGC is able to turn these into war grave plots by introducing headstone borders and planting. They are working to place a CWGC plate on the entry to all cemeteries where CWWG are located.

Screen walls:

Where local regulations prevented the marking of individual graves by headstones, screen walls were erected to commemorate the individuals by name. In addition, screen walls can be used to commemorate casualties whose remains were cremated and also in instances of ‘alternative commemoration’, where the graves in a cemetery or churchyard are no longer deemed maintainable.

Special Memorials / Alternatively Commemorated:

This is where an individual is commemorated at a different location to their actual place of burial. This is usually due to reasons beyond the control of the CWGC, where it is no longer possible to mark or maintain the registered war grave and where exhumation and reburial in a war cemetery or plot is impossible or impracticable. Alternative commemorations can take different forms, including special memorial headstones, screen walls, or group memorials. These differ from the memorials to the missing that the CWGC also maintains, which commemorate individuals with no known graves.

Special Memorials are CWGC headstones which look the same as the usual ones but which do not sit over an actual grave. They have a superscription across the top denoting their purpose.

They commemorate men who are buried in the cemetery but whose exact location is unknown or those buried in a grave in another cemetery which is now lost or is unmaintainable.

The list is as below:

Special Memorial: "Buried elsewhere in this cemetery"

Special Memorial: "Believed to be buried in this cemetery"

Special Memorial: "Known to be buried in this cemetery"

Special Memorial: "Buried near this spot"

Special Memorial: "Believed to be............"

Special Memorial: "Buried in ................ Cemetery (or Churchyard)"

Scattered war graves:

Individual graves account for the great majority of war burials in the UK and are to be found in every conceivable type of burial ground – including many local churchyards.

The majority are marked with Commission headstones but a significant number, over 30,000, are marked by private memorials chosen by relatives at the time. These graves are perhaps the most challenging to maintain as they are generally located amongst other graves that are not the responsibility of the CWGC.

Here the CWGC has had to adopt a practical approach to care. The headstone should be clean and upright and the surroundings should be tidy. The grave should be accessible but it is generally not possible to establish or maintain border planting in front of the grave. (see samples)

The CWGC maintain their graves to a high standard. Many families elected to have their relatives buried in family graves. Sadly over time these can be neglected, for whatever reason, as this sample of the pilot’s grave of Blenheim L1516 lost on the 24th May 1940 clearly shows. The CWGC have no jurisdiction to maintain them. (We understand that there maybe many reasons why such graves have failed to be maintained and as such decline to comment)

Contact Details for CWGC:

(Please try and mention Aircrew Remembered with enquiries - it does help us regarding our recognition)

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

2 Marlow Road
SL6 7DX Email

Runnymede Memorial:

The Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede commemorates by name over 20,000 airmen who were lost in the Second World War during operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North and Western Europe, and who have no known graves. They served in Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, Transport, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands, and came from all parts of the Commonwealth. Some were from countries in continental Europe which had been overrun but whose airmen continued to fight in the ranks of the Royal Air Force. Others such as the Malta Memorial and the Alamein Memorial follow the same guide lines.

As from May 2017 we are able to offer a high resolution photograph of every panel at the Runnymede Memorial - thanks to one of our new volunteers. Please contact us for further details.

As time moves on, research uncovers new information which sometimes confirms an identity of a lost one and that they do in fact have a headstone - as and when absolute positive proof is submitted to the CWGC - details are amended. Although their names are not normally removed from the panels.

We have many locations that we have investigated to various degrees where we are sure the graves marked as 'Known Unto God' are the graves of crew members. One such case are the graves of the crew from 18 Squadron Blenheim IV L9325. Which we are proud to have been able to assist with this, as indeed, many others!

We fully accept the reasons why the CWGC have to be so very careful with reports sent to them. In the UK cases relating to identification of RAF personnel are a matter for the Air Historical Branch of the RAF who do the work on behalf of the MOD JCCC. The RAF, RCAF, RAAF and RZNAF authorities are equally prepared to look at individual cases.

The Runnymede memorial is a beautiful and a well laid out area, well worth the visit, parking is easy, wreaths, photographs, mementoes are often laid by visiting relatives from all over the world - of course these are removed after a period of time to keep the area to the standard the CWGC strives to maintain. Anyone not able to visit the memorial, but would like a photo of the panel are invited to contact us and we will do our best to accommodate your wishes. (Maybe not immediately - but we will do our best)

Sadly, the Missing Research and Enquiries Unit (MREU), which had been tasked to identify lost aircrew, was disbanded in the early 1950s despite their results - due to the expense. Through thorough research, intelligence and medical reports, they discovered many aircrew that had been 'lost without trace'. In 2016 further research by many amateur researchers are trying to change this - the CWGC will take action once definitive proof has been submitted.

It is worth mentioning that other nations, in particular the USA has promised their nation that all their service people will either be brought home or identified and buried where they were lost. In 2017, some 70 plus years - they continue to fulfil that promise!

Some relatives, when a loved one was lost within the United Kingdom, could claim the body and that would be honoured and then moved to the cemetery of the choice of the family - normally their home town. A CWGC headstone would be erected and maintained if chosen. Otherwise a private headstone could be erected at the cost of the family.

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KTY 03.12.2018 Some details updated.

KTY 20.12.2018 Video added.

KTY 24.01.2019 Updated.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them. - Laurence Binyon

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Last Modified: 21 September 2022, 16:15

If you would like to comment on this page, please do so via our Helpdesk. Use the Submit a Ticket option to send your comments. After review, our Editors will publish your comment below with your first name, but not your email address.

A word from the Editor: your contribution is important. We welcome your comments and information. Thanks in advance.

Christiana, Belgium:

Thank you so much for this explanation - it answers many questions that I have not been able to find answers to - God Bless you all.

Jack W, New Zealand:

Thanks, I have often wondered why New Zealand graves have no epitaph inscribed - now it has been made clear.

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