The body of a British soldier by the roadside awaiting burial. The wooden cross is already prepared. Near Domart, 3 April 1918. © IWM (Q 11579)
© IWM (Q 11579)
The body of a British soldier by the roadside awaiting burial near Domart, 3 April 1918.

As the First World War’s bloodiness amplified, the practical challenges of dealing with death on a vast scale grew – from locating remains and identifying bodies to burying the dead. For Britain, the human cost was such that it has never been surpassed in a subsequent conflict.

Around three quarters of a million British servicemen died as a result of the conflict. When combined with deaths sustained by Britain’s Empire forces, the toll grew nearer to approximately one million lives. It also included thousands of women who were killed while volunteering as nurses or for female branches of the armed services.

As the death toll mounted, a significant decision was taken in 1915. Human remains would not be brought home for burial. Even when families understood that repatriation was not practical in the midst of the titanic war, some were deeply aggrieved that the decision held firm in peacetime.

Establishing permanent burial grounds for British and Empire soldiers became a core responsibility of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) which was established in 1917. Plans were outlined in a seminal report written by Sir Frederic Kenyon. His ground-breaking summary - ‘War Graves: How the Cemeteries Abroad Will Be Designed - was presented to the IWGC in 1918.

Kenyon had been asked to draw conclusions from contrasting architectural ideas and proposals for burial grounds. These sites were made possible by the gift of land to Britain from the host nation (if they had been an ally). The acquisition of land in former enemy territory was settled by the Treaty of Versailles.  In an early statement, the IWGC set out a bold vision:

'…all, from General to Private, of whatever race or creed, should receive equal honour under a memorial which should be the common symbol of their comradeship and of the cause for which they died.'

In deciding not to bring those who had died abroad back home for reburial, mourning the human cost could not be accompanied by funerals attended by families or visits to a local graveside. The imposition of a uniform design for all the permanent cemeteries was also an emotive issue, as Kenyon made clear:

'It is necessary to face the fact that this decision has given pain in some quarters, and pain which the Commissioners would have been glad to avoid. Not a few relatives have been looking forward to placing a memorial of their own choosing over the graves which mean so much to them; some have devoted much time and thought to making such a memorial beautiful and significant. Yet it is hoped that even these will realize that they are asked to join in an action of even higher significance. The sacrifice of the individual is a great idea and worthy of commemoration; but the community of sacrifice, the service of a common cause, the comradeship of arms which has brought together men of all ranks and grades – these are greater ideas, which should be commemorated in those cemeteries where they lie together, the representatives of their country in the lands in which they served.'  

War cemetery at Ecoivres, restored by the Canadians, 30 October 1917. IWM (Q 78616)
IWM (Q 78616)
Cemetery at Ecoivres containing the graves of Canadian soldiers, 30 October 1917.

Kenyon made visits to existing cemeteries as part of his research, and sought out military, bereaved, religious and artistic viewpoints. He drew upon landscaping expertise from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Three of Britain’s most eminent architects – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – were appointed to develop guiding design principles. Kenyon also took literary advice from the prominent poet and author Rudyard Kipling. He was also a bereaved father; his only son, John, had been killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.  

One abiding aspect of the design approach was inarguable:The Commissioners are of opinion that no distinction should be made between officers and men lying in the same cemeteries in the form or nature of the memorials.’

The most intimate aspect of the IWGC’s work centred on headstone designs for individual graves, which had been temporarily marked with wooden crosses during the war. Kenyon was strongly in favour a stone of exactly the same dimensions for every person, where possible. Their ‘ordered ranks’ would help to give ‘the appearance as of a battalion on parade, and suggesting the spirit of discipline and order which is the soul of an army’. Most of all, Kenyon believed, they could provide consolation to bereaved families:

'The individual headstone, marking the individual grave, will serve as centre and focus of the emotions of the relatives who visit it.'

The standardised, rounded-top shape of the stone caused consternation to some, as expressed in the House of Lords by Lord Balfour of Burleigh in 1919:

'But the question I want to raise is why it is necessary that the headstones should be absolutely uniform. Why should it be in a form which will look like nothing else but a line of milestones?'

But the commitment to design uniformity was also underpinned by an aversion to the ‘jumbled mass’ of civilian headstone tributes in cemeteries on the Western Front that were ‘neither dignified nor inspiring’.  Standardised lettering for the inscriptions on headstones and memorials was created by graphic designer, letterer and architect Macdonald Gill. He also designed regimental badge outlines for inscription – a diverse array of designs that Kenyon hoped would ‘gratify the regimental feeling which is so strong a characteristic of the British Army’.

Composite photograph of wooden cross from the grave of Sergeant H Lewis Burt © IWM (EPH 950) and a stonemason engraving a headstone destined for the grave of Private John Christopher Weatherhead © IWMQ Q 100870
© IWM Q 100870/ © IWM (EPH 950)
Composite photograph of a temporary wooden cross grave marker from the grave of Sergeant H Lewis Birt and a stonemason engraving a permanent headstone destined for the grave of Private John Christopher Weatherhead.

Personal text inscriptions at the foot of each headstone were also permitted but were strictly limited to approximately three lines and ‘of the nature of a text or prayer’. There was a charge for this addition, effectively preventing families without spare funds the opportunity for personalisation. The IWGC had the final say on each and every inscription, with Ware being wary that it ‘is clearly undesirable to allow free scope for the effusions of the mortuary mason, the sentimental versifier, or the crank’.

Every large cemetery was tasked with incorporating two central structures: a secular Stone of Remembrance and a Christian-inspired Cross of Sacrifice. Rudyard Kipling recommended the inscription ‘Their name liveth for evermorefor each Stone of Remembrance, a biblical text from the Book of Ecclesiasticus. He also penned a simple tribute for the headstones of the unidentified dead: A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’

Cemetery of the Chinese Labour Corps awaiting completion. Noyelles-sur-Mer, 1919-1920
© Jeremy Gordon-Smith Q 100878
Cemetery containing the graves of men who served with the Chinese Labour Corps awaiting completion, Noyelles-sur-Mer.

Britain’s global Empire forces were religiously diverse, a fact that was duly considered in Kenyon’s report:

'One large and important class must be dealt with separately. It will be understood that where our Mohammedan, Hindu, and other non-Christian fellow subjects lie (and care has always been taken to bury them apart) their graves will be treated in accordance with their own religious beliefs and practices, and their own religious symbol will be placed over them.'

The graves of Chinese Labour Corps men who had died during their service in Britain’s forces, were also cared for by the Imperial War Graves Commission although they were not imperial subjects.

Kenyon made clear the sensitivity of his recommendations:

'My endeavour has been to arrive at a result which will, so far as may be, satisfy the feelings of relatives and comrades of those who lie in these cemeteries; which will represent the soldierly spirit and discipline in which they fought and fell; which will typify the Army to which they belonged; which will give expression to those deeper emotions, of regimental comradeship, of service to their Army, their King, their Country and their God, which underlay (perhaps often unconsciously) their sacrifice of themselves for the cause in which they fought, and which in ages to come will be a dignified memorial, worthy of the nation and of the men who gave their lives for it, in the lands of the Allies with whom and for whom they fought.'

Although some bereaved families were opposed to the proposals, the IWGC accepted Kenyon’s recommendations on 18 February 1918, with the war still raging. In peacetime a flurry of construction resulted in the creation of more than 500 permanent cemeteries and 400,000 headstones by 1927.  The construction boom also included major memorials to the missing. The financial commitment to maintaining graves, cemeteries and memorials has endured to this day, expanding as the Second World War wrought more violence and caused further deaths. Whether interred or commemorated by a simple inscription, the final resting places of the First World War British and Empire dead became part of an innovative democracy of death.

Laura Clouting’s book A Century of Remembrance explores the deeply personal ways in which people mourned and memorialised their loves one and examines the cornerstones of national-scale remembrance that took hold in Britain throughout the 1920s, from the poppy to the cenotaph. You can purchase the book from the IWM Shop.

Headstones at Ovillers Military Cemetery outside Ovillers-la Boisselle
Headstones at Ovillers Military Cemetery outside Ovillers-la Boisselle.

Related content

First World War

Battlefield Pilgrimages

Find out more about battlefield pilgrimages and why people made the journey to the First World War battlefields in the aftermath of the conflict.

Richmond War Memorial
Q 48871

War Memorials Register

The IWM is compiling the War Memorials Register - the comprehensive national register of UK war memorials and the names of the individuals they commemorate.