1. What is the difference between Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) and Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) ?

The original Graves Registration Unit set up in 1915 became the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 and became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960.

The forerunner was a British Red Cross Unit formed in France in September 1914 run by Fabian Ware. It was quickly noted that there was no official registration of the dead and in 1915 this became The Graves Registration Commission (GRC) later to be Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries (DGRE), which as it’s name suggests dealt with the growing number of letters with regard to missing soldiers from relatives wanting information. With the support of the Prince of Wales, the Imperial War Graves Commission was set up by Royal Charter on 21st May 1917 again headed by Fabian Ware. It should be noted that GRC / DGRE were military, but IWGC and subsequently CWGC were civilian.

The main reason for the name change to CWGC, was that it was considered that the name Imperial had too many links to the past in a post war era that was trying to bring old enemies together and therefore deemed inappropriate, so the lead word was changed to Commonwealth.

2. Does the IWGC / CWGC only cover World War 1 and World War 2 casualties?

Strictly speaking yes, but CWGC has graves in it’s care from many countries, called FN (Foreign Nationals) which are usually maintained by them under international agreements. Obviously this is done on a case by case basis, Also there were no civilian casualties listed for WW1.

3. Which countries are included in the Commonwealth?

The partner countries that share the cost of the Commission are Australia / Canada / India / New Zealand / South Africa and the United Kingdom and the cost is roughly proportionate to the the number of commemorations.

There are war graves in 149 countries and there are almost 1,700,000 commemorations.

4. Why are there designated sections in some churchyards or cemeteries, for war dead and not in others?

In a nutshell, the places where service dead are buried has nothing to do with CWGC. Local authorities, as far as we are aware have to set aside places to bury all dead. In most places plots were set aside within these areas to bury war dead, assuming there were local men and women who qualified. After the wars CWGC were responsible for maintenance of service graves and this is still the case. In some places this is done on a contract basis but the CH’s themselves are CWGC’s responsibility. There is also a 3 year cycle for all graves in the UK to be inspected. An inscription has to be legible from two feet in order for it to be deemed ok. This is of course subjective.

In short there are no regulations as to how and where service plots are to be placed. A point to bear in mind is that inscriptions and memorials on a Cross Of Sacrifice or CWGC memorials are military, whereas a local war memorial is civil and not subject to the same limitations by CWGC. That’s why so many names on war memorials can’t be verified.

A  CWGC cemetery has to have at least 40+ war graves for a Cross of Sacrifice (CoS) and 400+ for a Stone of Remembrance, however there are exceptions to these rules…..as ever, nothing is simple. Local authorities have the power to erect (or not to do so) if they see fit. CWGC has no control over these things.

5. Why do some headstones have additional inscriptions at the bottom and others do not?

We will preface this by quoting from the Commission’s guiding principles which were established in 1920:

“Each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name, either on the headstone on the grave or by an inscription on a memorial”
“Each headstone and memorial should be permanent”
“Each headstone should be uniform”
“There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed”

Each headstone is 81.3mm in height and usually at the top is the national or regimental crest followed by name rank and unit, and usually a religious symbol and in many cases an inscription chosen by relatives

The relatives of the dead of both wars were offered the opportunity of having a Personal Inscription, (PI) added to their Commission Headstone (CH). This was of course subject to there being a known grave, as opposed to those with no known grave. In practice all the graves in the UK were known graves although we have seen added inscriptions on war memorials as well.

When the Final Verification Forms were sent out to relatives, they were asked to confirm the details held by the Commission and to add any personal details to be added to the registers. Also they were asked if they wanted an inscription. There was a limit of 66 letters (including spaces).

In WW1 there was a charge of three and a half (old) pence per letter. Needless to say most people could not afford this charge, but it was debated and the conclusion reached that any type of payment would be seen as some sort of ownership of the stones by the relatives and seeing as the stones, then as now are the property of CWGC (not the grave or contents only the stone) it was decided that the charge would be on a voluntary basis.

As a matter of principle the NZ government decided there should be no inscriptions on their stones as one of the founding principles of the Commission was equality for all and if you charged everybody and some could not pay, that would be deemed to be unfair. Again in practice some NZ stones do have some inscriptions on them. A couple of things to bear in mind, most of these events happened a long time after WW1 so headstones and inscriptions were only considered well into the 20’s and originally there were only wooden crosses. And secondly many families had their own family memorials in the UK and names were added to them or where someone died in the UK, they were buried with or near their families and where possible their own headstones were erected. This is called a Private Memorial (PM) and it does not affect war grave status, it is the person not the stone that has war grave status. Also there were only a few repatriations very early on in 1914 for the rich who could afford it and it was stopped as it was not viable even for them and the weight of numbers precluded it from happening en mass. In practical terms there was no repatriation in WW1. It was also a fact that war grave status was not going to be considered in the UK till into the 20’s but again the vast numbers of those returning with wounds, disease and for other reasons, made the public demand that soldiers who died in the UK and even those who never left the UK, should be treated in the same way as the Royal Charter charged them so to do.

6. Why do some headstones have ‘Buried in this Churchyard’ on the inscription?

They simply don’t know where in the churchyard they were buried and there are no church records exist to back them up. Some say “Buried Nearby” or some other variation on this depending on how CWGC view it.

7. What was the process for arranging the headstone?

Relatives  were sent Final Verification Forms (FVF), on the form there was a section where you marked which religious symbol was required, or no symbol. The default symbol being the Cross. There were also some relatives did not want the military to commemorate their lost kinfolk, however there is going to be a memorial to them at a CWGC cemetery as under the CWGC Royal Charter they have to be commemorated somewhere.

8. Who was elligible for a war grave?


  Qualifying dates:
WW1…….4 / 8 / 1914 – 31 / 8 / 1921.
WW2…….3 / 9 / 1939 – 31 / 12 / 1947.

a)  Any serving member of a Commonwealth armed force who died during these qualifying dates in any location and of any cause whatsoever. Cause of death can be categorised as follows:

1. Killed In Action
2. Died Of Illness
3. Died By Accident
4. Died through homicide or suicide
5. Died through Judicial Execution.

b) Any former member of a Commonwealth armed force who died during the qualifying dates of injuries or of a condition related to service during the qualifying dates i.e. Men / Women who died of wounds or illness after discharge.

c) Any member of a Recognised Civillian Organisation i.e. Red Cross, Mercantile Marine. Y.M.C.A. who died whilst on duty AND of a war cause or the increased threat brought on by war during the qualifying dates.RCO‘s were civilian units who worked closely with or under the direction of the military.V.A.D.’s were such an organisation.

9. Did any civillians get a Commission headstone / war grave?

Home Guard and other Civil Defence units were all civilian, but got war grave status under certain conditions (See also answer to 3).

It would seem as though being overseas counted as being “on duty” during the qualifying dates as it would be deemed a “war cause” on the grounds they would not have been there but for the war. People who died at home however is more problematical.

Having a CWGC or Private headstone does not alter the casualties entitlement to war grave status & listing by CWGC.

10. Do all those who have a ‘Private Memorial’ placed by family also have a ‘Commission headstone’?

Not necessarily some relatives did not want the military to commemorate their lost kinfolk, others were buried in “common” ground along with maybe ten or a dozen other people so they can’t erect a stone on common ground. Plus many people were not recognised as war dead till many years later

This is another one where there is no neat answer. As discussed previously, many who had family memorials already in existence simply added a loved ones name if they died abroad, thus adding to the family names already there. Also if they died in the UK and were buried there in situ thus creating a PM (Private Memorial) In some cases, there may have been a CH already in place but there was nothing to prevent a family erecting a family memorial later thus having both a CH and a PM. It is a fact that there is no compulsion to commemorate anyone anywhere, civil or military, and for some people that is just as well.

Remember it is the person that has war grave status not the grave or the headstone. Just because a person is named on a headstone, he or she may not be buried there so that does not make it a war grave. They will either be remembered where they fell or with a name on a wall screen in France, Belgium or wherever.

Sometimes, if a name on a PM is not legible for some reason (and the person is buried there) CWGC, because they have to “record and commemorate” will try to contact whoever owns the grave and try to work out what to do. If, and especially after the passage of time (especially for WW1) no relatives can be found, a CH will be erected so that the status quo is maintained. This is part of the answer and as with the other questions there are dozens of different reasons why this or that should or shouldn’t happen, and a lot of times CWGC seems to be in conflict with itself. What happened is that when a soldier died in what is termed “At Home” which really means in the UK as opposed to abroad, the family were offered by the army to either bury them with a CH where they died or return the body to the relative’s home town but at the relative’s expense. Many of the poor could not afford this that many men who died in all parts of England, Scotland Ireland and Wales are buried there rather than in local cemeteries and churchyards.

11. Where there is a War Memorial plaque or Cross of Remembrence with names recordedon it, does it mean that there bodies were never found and or they were buried in another country?

In the UK they will only commemorate with a name on a wall if a grave is not found. A name on a grave is preferable to a name on a wall. As most men in the UK died from wounds or disease received overseas and many who died in the flu epidemics and came from many of the big military hospitals at that time (Bethnal Green Dalston etc) there was probably not a lot of time to consider these things, bearing in mind war grave status had not been introduced at that time so an ex-soldier was considered no different to anybody else. And as you couldn’t put a CH on common ground it was thought that the next best thing was to put their names on a wall in a cemetery where they are buried.

12. Were prisoners of war who died in the UK given war graves?

War grave status is only applied to Commonwealth deaths so obviously POW’s don’t fall into that category.

13. How do you correct an error on a Commission headstone?

Contact CWGC here and they will tell you what you need to do.