100 Years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

On this day in 1917, a Royal Charter was given establishing what is now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The cemeteries and graves the Commission look after can found across the world.

The Commission was the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware who, being too old to fight in World War One, commanded a British Red Cross mobile unit. Whilst serving in France he realised  the need to mark the places where the fallen were buried so they would not be forgotten. By 1915 his work and that of his unit were recognised by the War Office and in 1917 they were given a Royal Charter and the Commission was officially formed.

The Commission had identified around 587,000 graves by 1918 and nearly as many registered casualties whose graves were unknown. After the end of the war the Commission set about creating the cemeteries and memorials we most associate the Commission with today.

Cross 2

Leading architects of the day were called upon to help design the cemeteries and gravestones and Rudyard Kipling was brought in as literary advisor for the inscriptions.

Twenty years after the Commission received it’s Charter, Ware wrote a book about its work called The Immortal Heritage – An Account of the Work and Policy of The Imperial War Graves Commission during the twenty years 1917-1937. The book includes a brief history of the Commission, alongside pictures of the cemeteries they created and a table showing the distribution of the cemeteries, graves and memorials in their care.

The cemeteries and memorials to the fallen can be found all over the world and include graves and memorials to servicemen and women from North Devon. Men like Jack Haysom (18) who died in India in 1915 whilst serving with the Devonshire Regiment; Serjeant Ernest George Symons of Landkey who was killed at Gallipoli and Lance Corporal Edward Brayley (31) who died during the Battle of Dujailah in Mesopotamia. All were buried in war cemeteries looked after by the Commission.

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The Commission, however, also look after graves much closer to home. In 1937 the Commission were looking after over 88,174 graves across 9,262 burial grounds within Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Barnstaple has 27 World War One graves, Bideford has 15 and Ilfracombe 21 and there are many others scattered across North Devon.

The cemeteries and graveyards of North Devon also contain the graves of those who fell in other conflicts. Barnstaple has another 22 World War Two war graves, including 2 civilian war dead. Wilfred Cater is one of those buried in Barnstaple after he died in training as an RAF Volunteer Reservist in 1941 aged 42. His Brother, Frank, had survived the First World War having seen action with the Royal North Devon Hussars at Gallipoli  before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and subsequently the Royal Air Force.

13th January 1916 3 b-c RNDH At Gallipoli

Heanton Punchardon has the largest number of war graves in North Devon – 127 in total. The churchyard at St. Augustine is the burial-place for many of the men who were lost from RAF Chivenor during the war. Many of them were members of the Canadian and Australian Air Forces and they also include Czech servicemen who were part of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves.

No matter where the graves and memorials are located the Commission are charged with their care.

Find Out More

Find out more about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Sir Fabian Ware by reading the following items we hold on our shelves

The Silent Cities by Sidney C Hurst [940.4411/HUR] is an illustrated guide to the war cemeteries and memorials in France and Flanders published in 1929

The Immortal Heritage by Fabian Ware [940.411/WAR] published in 1937 is an account of the first twenty years of the Commission

…Barum Athena

The Priscott Twins

The Priscott Twins

Fred and Reg Priscott, twin brothers, served with the 1st 6th Devons in both India and Mesopotamia during the First World War. Born 18th October 1895, in Barnstaple, they were the Regiments only serving twins.

Before the war both Frederick John and Reginald James Priscott were working for local furniture maker Shapland and Petter and their names can be found on the Roll of Honour listing all those who signed up to fight from the firm, now held at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. Fred took an active part in the Rackfield Mission and would also play the organ for the Baptist Sunday School.

The brothers joined the 6th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, a territorial unit primarily drawn from the North Devon area. Shortly after the outbreak of war the 6th Devons were amongst those who were due to be sent to France, however, a change in plans saw them being sent to India instead. The men of the 6th Devons, including the twins, found themselves spending Christmas in Lahore.

7th January 1915 With the 6th Devons in India Headline

North Devon Journal 7th January 1915 page 6 column a  – To read the full article visit our Facebook album North Devon War Items

 

They remained in India for just over a year. Fred found himself being posted to Amritsar, whilst Reg remained in Lahore. Both took the opportunity to do some sightseeing, Fred visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and Reg the museum and zoo in Lahore. Reg also found time to visit a cabinet shop! Fred was also appointed as organist to the Church of England church of St. Paul by the Colonel.

Christmas 1915 saw the 6th Devons prepare to leave India for Mesopotamia to relieve the besieged town of Kut-el-Amara. There was excitement and apprehension over the task ahead of them. The letters the twins sent home, which were published in the local newspapers, were full of hope of reaching all the way to Baghdad but they also asked for prayers to be said for them. You can read the published letters in previous posts 6th Devons in Persian Gulf – Barumites Who Hope to Reach Bagdad and Sixth Devons -Leaving Lahore for Active Service

Landing at Basra in January 1916 the twins faced a long march ahead of them to reach Orah, over 220 miles away. The journey was long, the days hot and the nights bitterly cold. Rations were often late in getting to them and there was the constant threat of attacks and looting from the locals they encountered. Many of the Devons developed illnesses including dysentery and pneumonia  due to the conditions they faced.

The 8th March saw the 6th Devons involved in the Battle of Dujailah, a defensive post held by the Turks and a key objective towards securing the besieged town of Kut. The battle saw the heaviest loss of life in a single day for the battalion. In total they lost 49 Officers and hundreds of men within the space of 24 hours, with hundreds more being wounded.

News of the battle started to appear in the local newspapers eight days later, on the 16th March and there was more to come in the weeks that followed. For those back home, information about what had become of their loved ones was slow to come through prompting the Mayor of Barnstaple to write to the War Office to try to expedite matters.

It wasn’t until three months later did the North Devon Journal newspaper publish news about the fate of the Priscott twins. Reg was in hospital after becoming sick, presumably with dysentery or something similar, having fought in the Battle of Dujailah. Fred was seriously wounded a month after Dujailah when a final attempt to relieve Kut took place.

Fred was shot in the neck and the bullet grazed his spinal column before becoming lodged under his shoulder-blade. In a letter home he wrote “The doctor is always telling me I am a lucky fellow, as another one-eight of an inch and I should have been paralysed.”

15th June 1916 5b Reg Priscott note

North Devon Journal 15th June 1916 page 5 column b

15th June 1916 5c Fred Priscott letter

North Devon Journal 15th June 1916 page 5 column c

Both twins survived the war but eventually went their separate ways. Reg stayed in Barnstaple, returning to Shapland and Petter. He also became involved with the Unions, setting up a branch of the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union in Barnstaple, and also served as chairman of the Barnstaple Trades Council. Fred moved to Royston, in Hertfordshire where he became a travelling bible salesman and preached regularly, he too was involved in trade union and labour movements.

 

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The Priscott Twins in 1953 at the 6th Devons annual reunion

The twins were to be reunited in 1953 at the annual Devonshire Regiment reunion to mark the Battle of Dujailah. They had not seen each other for nearly 30 years! Fred died in June 1961 a week before he was due to preach at the Rackfield Mission. Reg passed away in July 1987.

 

Further Reading:

You can read more about the 1/6th Devons and their experiences in the First World War in our Discover the Battle of Dujailah & the 1/6th Devons…On Our Shelves post.

“Dujailah” Days by Colonel GB Oerton (DP355/OER)

The Bloody Eleventh by WJ Aggett (D355/AGG)

The 6th Devons and their Origins by John Rowe (DP355/ROW)

The Sixth Battalion Devonshire Regiment in the Great War by Lieut-Colonel CL Flick (D355/FLI)

We also hold a pedigree files for the Priscott twins

Contact us or visit our website for more information

..Barum Athena

Discover the Battle of Dujailah & the 1/6th Devons…On Our Shelves

P1000560 (2)Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Dujailah. While it remains one of the less well known battles of the First World War, but for North Devon it was one of the worst. Some 49 officers and men were killed from the 1/6th Devonshire Regiment in one day and hundreds more died as a result of wounds or illness associated with the campaign.

The 1/6th Battalion Devonshire Regiment was a territorial force based in Barnstaple and made up of men recruited from around the North Devon area. Not long after the outbreak of war they were sent to India where they stayed until they received orders to go to Mesopotamia with their Indian counterparts to be a part of the British campaign to relieve a garrison at Kut el Amara. There was plenty of nerves and excitement amongst the men as the time for their departure from India drew near as letters printed in the local newspapers from the Priscott twins show.

Some 40 members of the 1/6th Devons had already been sent to Mesopotamia attached to the Dorestshire Regiment and were among those stranded in the garrison at Kut el Amara. Something which the men were well aware of as Colonel G.B. Oerton wrote in his first hand account “Dujailah” Days…

“No men…ever had a greater incentive to spur them on in an attempt to succour their comrades than they. They would have gone through (and literally did go through), fire and water to achieve this. They had no intention of letting their pals fall into the hands of the Turks, or worse the Arabs if they could possibly prevent it.” [p 5 “Dujailah” Days by Colonel GB Oerton (DP355/OER)]

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The 1/6th Devons landed at Basra on the 6th January 1916 and immediately faced a march of some 230 miles to reach the Front at a place called Orah somewhere north of Sheikh Saad.

“The nights at that time of year were bitter: the going, with the river in flood, execrable; the mud was heavy enough to draw the sole’s of men’s boots. There was no fuel to light fires and although, for much of the time the temperature was that of an English winter, the 1st/6th still wore the thin ‘Indian Drill’ uniform.” [p 37 The Bloody Eleventh by WJ Aggett (D355/AGG)]

To make matters worse the men were on half rations throughout the march, and although tired and exhausted they were ready to take their part in the attack. However, things did not go well for them.

“The assault force, in two groups, was to march across the desert at night and attack in the early morning. The Sixth Devons’ task was involved with the attack on the redoubt forming the southern anchor point of the Turkish defence at Dujailah. The approach march went well, but the timing went astray. The Dujailah assault force were horrified to hear the guns of the other group open fire before they were ready, alerting the Turks.” [p23 The 6th Devons and their Origins by John Rowe (DP355/ROW)]

In the subsequent fighting and retreat the 6th Devons suffered their largest loss of life in a single day.

The “[b]attalion behaved splendidly in spite of losing nineteen officers and nearly three hundred men (killed, wounded and missing). Many tales are told of non-commissioned officers and men rallying small parties and driving back determined enemy counter attacks. The officers were almost too brave and most of those killed were picked off as they charged away ahead of the equally gallant men. The heat was terrific and accentuated by a regrettable lack of water. The regimental-sergeant major was mainly responsible for the adequate water supply of the battalion.” [p 15 The Sixth Battalion Devonshire Regiment in the Great War by Lieut-Colonel CL Flick (D355/FLI)]

There are many accounts of the battle within our local collection, but we also have a few items in our General Collection which cover the events in the Middle East. Volume five of The Empire At War by Sir Charles Lucas covers the Indian involvement in the war and Ronald Millar’s Kut; The Death of an Army also covers the events in Mesopotamia

After Dujailah the 6th Devons were pulled back from the front line and spent the rest of the war either guarding the supply routes in Mesopotamia or back in India until the August of 1919 when they finally returned home. Their fallen comrades were not forgotten though, and they commemorated their sacrifice each year by holding an annual “Dujailah Day” reunion.

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Members of the 6th Devons outside St. Peter’s Church March 1954 [NDJ Archive NDJ-bx 222-06]

You can find out more about our Library Collection via our website and online catalogue. You can also find newspaper articles from the local newspapers covering the events of the First World War on our Facebook page. The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon also has an exhibition running from February 27th – April 9th 2016 called From Devon to Dujailah which shows the experiences of the 6th Devons in Mesopotamia through the eyes of Sgt Vernon C Boyle.