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.

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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

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With the Royal North Devon Hussars on Active Service

In a previous post containing a first hand account of the Royal North Devon Hussars landing at Suvla Bay letters from Sergt Cater gave an insight into what it was like for the Royal North Devon Hussars in Gallipoli. In this article, published in the North Devon Journal there are further glimpses into what life was like for the men…

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From: North Devon Journal 18th November 1915 page 6 column c

Sergt. F.J. Cater, of the 1st Royal North Devon Hussars (son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Cater, Victoria-street, Barnstaple) who is on active service in the East, writing to his parents says:- “We are on land at last, and I am writing this from a very different place to any I have occupied as a home before. We landed on Saturday after being on the water just 17 days. We left the big boat—which, by the way, is the same boat I came back from New York in—on Friday for a much smaller, and were expecting to land here the same evening, but a rather severe storm sprang up which prevented it. A part of the Brigade did get off on the lighter, but it was so rough and the lighter was pitching about so much, that the officers thought it unsafe to attempt landing. So they ordered the men back, which was a very risky undertaking, each man having to be practically thrown abroad our boat as the lighter lifted on the waves. It was pouring with rain all the night and a great many of the men were wet through. I was fortunate in getting into the smoking saloon. There was quite a crowd of us in there trying to sleep, and it was nothing to doze for a little while and, waking up, find another fellow;s feet on your head or sticking into your ribs. Saturday turned out a topping day, the only complaint being that it was too hot. Our turn to land came about 2 o’clock, after a delicious meal of bully beef and biscuits. We were pretty heavily loaded with our pack, wet equipment, rifle, ammunition, entrenching tool, and kit bag, weighing in all, I should think, about 90lbs, which we had to carry about two mile, before reaching our present position. I suppose I might tell you that we are somewhere in the Peninsula, being only a mile in the rear of the first line trenches. Our shells pass screaming overhead at intervals and from where we are we can watch the enemy’s shells pitch. We live in dug-outs on the side of a hill covered with stones and scrubs. We are fed very well. For breakfast we get bacon, bread and jam, and tea. At dinner, stew one day, and tinned beef and biscuits the next. For tea, bread and jam, and tea. Water is not too plentiful, and has to be fetched two miles down the hill. We get enough to drink, but for washing we should be hard up if it was not for a chance of a swim in the sea about every other day. There is a lot of old and dirty clothes lying about on the beach and hill, also old clips of ammunition, which tell of strenuous times for the landing party that took these hills, Flies are our greatest nuisance here, although every precaution is taken by a great many of the fellows to ensure cleanliness as far as possible.”

In a later letter Sergt. Cater said:- “Quite a lot of fellows are down with dysentery. The climate and change of living are naturally sure to make themselves felt, especially in our case, not having had the opportunity to get climatised before coming here. We are all being inoculated against cholera—my turn this evening! If we get done many more time we shall be proof against every disease. We ought to be able to live cheap after the experience we are getting here—just a pit in the ground with a small blanket for a bed; and for washing, that will be entirely unnecessary, for if we like we may secure about a pint of water once in two days. First we shave in it and have glorious bath in the remainder! The weather has changed considerably and instead of going without coats, we are glad to put on an extra one, the nights especially being cold. The enemy shells burst, but now we take very little notice of them. I forgot to tell you that we have to give up our motor cycles, the part we are in being altogether too rough for that kind of work, and I am now an infantryman. Of course, I still retain my rank as Sergeant, and when we get to more suitable ground we shall use our cycles.”

Transcript from the North Devon Journal 18th November 1915 page 6 column c. You can find more articles covering North Devonians experiences in Gallipoli on our Facebook page or by going to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon which is also the home of the Regimental Collection of the Royal Devon Yeomanry.

Royal North Devon Hussars at Gallipoli – a first hand account

A hundred years ago today the Royal North Devon Hussars were landed at Sulva Bay as part of the Gallipoli Campaign. Very little was reported in the newspapers at the time as there was a ban on the reporting of movements. It was only after the evacuation of the peninsula that the stories of those who served there were printed, in this example Sergeant Frank Cater of the Royal North Devon Hussars writes about his experiences…

13th January 1916 3 b-c RNDH At Gallipoli

From: North Devon Herald, 13th January 1916 page 3 columns b-c

With the official news of the evacuation of Gallipoli and the publication of Sir Ian Hamilton’s lengthy despatch, the ban on the movements of the Royal North Devon Hussars as far at the Peninsula is concerned is now removed. North Devonians—and Barumites in particular—will read with interest the particulars of the landing of the local Yeomanry from the pen of Sergt. Frank Cater, the son of Mr. and Mrs, J, Cater, of Victoria-road, Barnstaple. Describing their voyage to their Mediterranean destination, Sergt. Cater states that they journeyed at night with lights out. They used to get some decent singing during the evenings from the members of the Welsh Horse, who were imbued with that love of singing which is characteristic of the Principality. “It was a sight coming into the Bay of—-. For an hour we didn’t spot a boat, and then as we passed through the minefields we came upon a most impressive sight which brought home to one’s mind the extent of Britain’s sea-power. The Bay was literally full of craft of all kinds—giant battleships, cruisers, gunboats, submarines, and transports of all classes. I tried to count the vessel one morning, and reached nearly two hundred, when I decided to give it up. . . Subsequently our turn came to go. We were packed pretty tight on a small transport, and everything went all right for the first four or five hours while the weather held good, but just as we were getting near the coast where we landed a storm sprang up. It was just getting dark. The wind blew terrifically, and the rain descended in a torrential downpour. Many of our boys were literally soaked. Just after we picked up a Government pilot whose launch had been damaged by the storm. After steaming slowly for about half-an-hour we anchored, and then a tender came out, and with great difficulty we made fast. . . It was decided, however, that it was too rough to attempt a landing. . . . The next morning dawned lovely—the sun breaking over the hills and tinting the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean. Before us was the Peninsula, which had become familiar throughout the world—the scene of some of the bravest deeds wrought in the present war, and the last resting place of so many heroes. Well, we managed to make a breakfast from bully beef, biscuits, and tea, and we were then ready to land—a risky proceeding in daylight because of the Turks, who were in the habit of shelling the beach. We got ashore all right, although it was a rough trip—the tender rolling and pitching dreadfully. A large number of our fellows were sea-sick, although I am happy to state I was among the few who were lucky enough to escape that sensation. How lucky we were we were soon to learn; for no sooner had we marched up the hill, carrying packs, kit-bags, equipment, and rifles, than the Turks simply peppered the beach we had just left with shrapnel and lyddite shells. The shells were screaming over our heads and landing on the beach below. Half-way up the hill a halt was called, and we had to wait for the darkness before proceeding to the place destined to become our regimental base. For about a week we were subjected to sundry shellings, but happily we did not suffer a single casualty. On the following Sunday, however, the Turks commenced to shell a couple of our guns which were in the vicinity. The shells were bursting all around us, and unfortunately one killed Major Greig, officer commanding C Squadron. The death of so popular an officer naturally cast a gloom over the regiment. On the following day I was of the party of five N.C.O.’s told off to go into the first line of trenches to see how things were worked there. It was quite an experience. There are miles and miles of trenches, and each one bears a familiar name. For instance, there is Piccadilly Circus, branching off into Bond-street; Dublin-street, etc.’ and then there is an arch called the Marble Arch. It’s really necessary to have names of some sort, otherwise it would be impossible to find one’s way about. After remaining about a week in the dug-outs our squadron went into the trenches for twenty-four hours. We had a couple of trips, and then we were helping to man the trenches for eight days. I was put on outpost duty with six men, forming double sentries. . . . . With the break of day we returned to the fire trench; going on outpost duty again in the night. . . In the evening we had to go sand-bagging, building up the communicating trench, the bullets whizzing overhead the while, some of them hitting the bags, but fortunately missing us. The next night we had a much more risky job. The ——– Regiment on our right had pushed forward and established an advanced post, and it was up to us to do the same. I was told off with a party of eight. . . . and after cutting our own wire we advanced about 100 yards and started building what we call a grouse box. The remainder of the squad were engaged in passing out sandbags. We were extremely lucky in getting the wall high enough for shelter without drawing much fire from the Turkish trenches. We had to hold that box the following day and night, when another box was formed between ours and the —— Regiment. There wasn’t much risk of snipers, because there was no need for us to put our heads above the parapet, begin supplied as we were with periscopes. The next night a party of bomb throwers went out to cover a wiring party, and they were unfortunate in that they lost two men killed and one wounded. We also had tree men wounded by a shell, and another man killed and two wounded in a ‘grouse box.’ I forgot to state that while in the dug-outs a shell landed here and killed Sergt. Symons (Swimbridge) and Corpl. Ackland, and wounded two others. . . We are on the move again this evening—going to Anzac, the right base of Chocolate Hill—the scene of the great fight during the first landing, when it was taken and re-taken three times. . . . We are absolutely out of the world here—never see anyone excepting our own fellows. We cannot buy anything, with the exception of a little tobacco and matches, and at very long intervals, perhaps, a tin of sardines.” In conclusion, Sergt. Cater mentions that at the time of writing Arch Dobbs and Arthur Wall, both Barumites, were quite well.

Transcript from the North Devon Herald 13th January 1916 page 3 columns b-c. You can find more articles covering North Devonians experiences in Gallipoli on our Facebook page or by going to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon which is also the home of the Regimental Collection of the Royal Devon Yeomanry.