Actor Brian Blessed with CWGC Director General Victoria Wallace at the opening ceremony. The exhibition banner features Sir Fabian Ware, founder of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission in May 1917 (Photo: Centenary News)

CWGC opens 'For Then, For Now, Forever' Centenary exhibition

Posted on on 23 May 2017
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An exhibition marking the Centenary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has opened at Brookwood Military Cemetery, CWGC's largest site in the UK.

For Then, For Now, Forever, is among initiatives being launched by CWGC to make its work more widely known. Using archive photographs, documents and artefacts, it tells the organisation's story from its foundation as the Imperial War Graves Commission* in 1917 to the present day. 

Opening the event, actor Brian Blessed said: "The CWGC has done an incredible job over the last 100 years and long may it continue." 

Director General Victoria Wallace added: "The story of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is one the whole world should take pride in. That governments in 1917, amid the chaos and carnage of the First World War, had the vision to design, build and care for an estate of cemeteries and memorials of such beauty was a fitting testimony to their gratitude to all those who died for their countries."

View of the CWGC exhibition at the Canada Building, Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey (Photo: Centenary News)

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Looking back 100 years, it's hard to imagine that the plans for commemorating the dead of the Great War stirred controversy when they first emerged.

But this side of the story is a striking aspect of an exhibition that provides a 'snapshot' of CWGC's history and operations, writes CN Editor Peter Alhadeff.

Today, the immaculate cemeteries and memorials, with their uniform rows of headstones, are justly admired as ideal physical expressions of remembrance.

However, that very uniformity was among the sticking points for critics of the fledgling Imperial War Graves Commission a century ago. 


On display for the first time is a petition bearing 8,000 signatures - mostly those of mothers who'd lost sons in the war - asking the then Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) to reconsider the use of a headstone in favour of a cross.

Drawn up in the 1920s, it was addressed to the Prince of Wales (IWGC's first President, later King Edward VIII).

Some even warned against imperilling the freedoms that their loved ones had died for.

"The work of the Imperial War Graves Commission was contentious and it was widely debated. It was seen by many of the bereaved as very far from the comforting and egalitarian kind of space that Fabian Ware intended," explained Dr Lucy Noakes, social and cultural historian at the University of Brighton. 

It was the teacher and journalist Sir Fabian Ware who founded the commission in May 1917 after his experiences as a British Red Cross volunteer at the front.

And it's fitting that that three large pictures of this imperturbable figure greet visitors to the exhibition.

"He was someone who had a vision and a sense of seeing through a great project," said Professor Mark Connelly of the University of Kent.

Without Ware's determination and persuasive powers, commemoration of the Commonwealth dead of both world wars might well have taken on a very different look.

The new 1914-1918 Memorial at Brookwood Military Cemetery. Built in 2015, it commemorates casualties who died in Britain during WW1 for whom no graves could be found (Photo: Centenary News)

'For Then, For Now, Forever' runs until 19 November 2017 at the Canada Building, Brookwood Military Cemetery, near Woking, in Surrey. For more details see the CWGC website. Dr Lucy Noakes and Professor Mark Connelly were among speakers who gave inaugural talks at the exhibition opening on May 20.

A Service of Thanksgiving for CWGC was held at Westminster Abbey in London today (23 May 2017) - For the Centenary, the Commission is also displaying its Artisan Garden at London's prestigious Chelsea Flower Show.

*IWGC was renamed Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960.

Posted by: CN Editor

Images: Centenary News