Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, July 25, 2022

An English Country Garden: the Imperial War Graves Commission's Cemetery Solution

Detail, Lone Tree CWGC Cemetery, Ypres Salient

For the important work of memorializing the British Empire’s war dead, the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC]) employed luminaries of architecture, landscape, and literature: Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Reginald Blomfield, and Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the monuments, with typeface designed by Max Gill; Gertrude Jekyll to oversee the landscape design; and Rudyard Kipling to choose the inscriptions. Because of the popularity of gardening in Great Britain, and even among the troops themselves, a general design guideline was that the cemeteries should remind visitors of an English country garden. In an interesting contrast, German landscape architects selected a more somber forest-like theme. 

War Graves Commission cemeteries are not identical, but they do have certain features in common. Most have stone enclosing walls and wrought-iron gates, and all feature standard headstones. Cemeteries with more than 40 graves generally have a Cross of Sacrifice as a focal point. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the Cross of Sacrifice is a granite cross with a bronze sword embedded on the front, mounted on an octagonal base.

Serre Road #2 CWGC Cemetery, Somme Battlefield
Cross of Sacrifice to Left, Stone of Remembrance to Right

Larger cemeteries, generally those with over a thousand graves (though there are exceptions), also have a Stone of Remembrance, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Devoid of overt religious symbolism, the stone recalls a tomb or perhaps an altar. The gravestones themselves are of light-colored limestone and differ only in their inscriptions. They generally feature an appropriate religious symbol, a national emblem (in Canada’s case, a maple leaf) or regimental badge, the soldier’s name, rank, unit, date of death, and age. Relatives also had the opportunity to pay for a short epitaph or other inscription to be added.

Around the periphery of many cemeteries overseas are graves marked “A Soldier of the Great War/Known unto God.” The bodies of these soldiers were unidentifiable. Though their graves do not identify them, the IWGC’s great memorials to the missing, such as the Menin Gate and Thiepval ensure that their histories are preserved.

Source: Manitoba Historical Society


  1. If you are in Belgium, a trip to Ypres and Menin Gate is a must. At 8:00pm every evening the Fire Brigade Buglers conduct "The Last Post" ceremony. This ceremony has run since 1928 when Menin Gate was dedicated. The only exception was during WWII from May 20, 1940-Sep 06,1944, the ceremony was moved to England at the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. Polish troops had liberated only half of Ypres when they resumed this magnificent and emotional tribute.

  2. Hi, Jack. Couldn't agree with you more. mary