DIPLOMATS and senior military officials from around the Commonwealth gathered at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday for a service marking the centenary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).
The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, paid tribute to all those who had worked for the CWGC, and said that the service was to “express our thanks, to celebrate their achievement, and to honour those who have held high the torch”.
The CWGC is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the graves and memorials of the 1.7 million soldiers killed during the two world wars. It also preserves the Civilian Registers: two volumes that contain the names of civilians killed during the two conflicts.
The volumes have been on permanent display in the Abbey since they were completed in the 1940s. Additional names have been added over the years. In the 1970s, an addenda was added to one of the volumes.
PICTURE PARTNERSHIP/WESTMINSTER ABBEYFull turn-out: Chelsea Pensioners at the service at Westminster AbbeyTwo years ago, several hundred new names were presented to the CWGC by the project team In From The Cold. Many of those named were “civilians who had died overseas [and] had been missed from the original rolls”, a CWGC archivist, Andrew Fetherston, wrote in an explanatory note published in the order of service. “Given the numbers involved, they could not be accommodated in the existing rolls, and the decision was taken to create two new volumes.”
The two new Civilian Rolls were presented to the Dean by Stuart Eldergill, a CWGC gardener in Cannock and North Central Region; and Richard Lockwood, a CWGC skilled-maintenance craftsman for the Eastern Region.
The Ngati Ranana London Maori Club sang the hymn “Au, e Ihu, tirohia”, “At me, O Jesus, look”, which was sung by the men of the 28th (Maori) Battalion at the battle at Chunuk Bair, in Gallipoli.
The Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, who arrived at the service straight from the emergency COBRA meeting called in response to the terrorist bombing in Manchester, read from the book of Job in his capacity as the CSGC’s chairman.
The CWGC’s honorary liaison officer for India, Lt. Gen. Ravi Eipe, said that the organisation’s reputation enabled it to break through bureaucratic barriers in a region where what had once been British India now included Pakistan and Bangladesh. He said that some 160,000 soldiers from the Indian Empire “served and fell in many theatres around the world. . . They are all remembered together.”
PICTURE PARTNERSHIP/WESTMINSTER ABBEYFloral tribute: members of the Royal Navy at the Grave of the Unknown WarriorThe technical supervisor for the CWGC in South Africa, Joey Monareng, explained that she had had to “travel for days to reach the most remote areas” of South Africa “to ensure the graves are well tended”. Working for the CWGC was “no ordinary job. It is a calling,” she said.
The Australian High Commissioner, Alexander Downer, said that the uniform nature of CWGC war cemeteries came about as a result of one of the organisation’s founding principles — controversial at the time — that “there is no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race, creed, or denomination.”
He said that Rudyard Kipling, having visited cemeteries on the Western Front, said: “I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
Mr Downer said that the work of the CWGC remained an ongoing task. In 2009, the remains of some 250 British and Australian soldiers had been removed from near a battleground in Fromelles, near Lille. DNA testing had enabled 150 of the soldiers to be identified. They had all now been reburied, with full military honours, at the Pheasant Wood military cemetery.
Through the ongoing work of the CWGC, Mr Downer said, the Commonwealth was fulfilling a promise made 100 years ago: that the fallen would not be forgotten.
GAVIN DRAKETended: Cannock Chase War Cemetery, where Stuart Eldergill is a one of the gardeners