King George V visiting Tyne Cot Cemetery, during his 1922 pilgrimage to the memorials under construction in Belgium and France. He was accompanied by Sir Fabian Ware (third from left), founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission - now CWGC. Standing next to the King are Field Marshal Earl Haig and Mr T Elvidge, Head Gardener at Tyne Cot (Photo © CWGC)

'Shaping Our Sorrow' - CWGC archive display launches for Armistice Centenary

Posted on on 14 October 2018
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More than 600 documents and photos from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s extensive archives have been released online for the end of the First World War Centenary.

Plans and architectural drawings for the earliest cemeteries and memorials explore how the Commission strove to provide a physical form and emotional outlet for the shared grief of Britain and its empire. 

But the collection, entitled Shaping Our Sorrow, also contains sharp reminders of the anger stirred by the principle of 'equality in death' that helped to shape remembrance as we know it today.

Some of that fury was vented directly against Sir Fabian Ware, the prominent Red Cross volunteer and founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission (later renamed CWGC) in 1917, whose vision ensured that the dead of the Great War would be commemorated individually, where they died.

The decision not to repatriate the fallen was particularly controversial. A grieving Canadian mother, Anna Durie, condemned the IWGC as the ‘most autocratic and tyrannical body of men that has existed since England lost the North American colonies.’ (Image © CWGC)

Another bereaved mother, Sarah Smith, started a petition, lobbying the Prince of Wales - as IWGC President - to reverse the policy.

The Commission felt, however, that if some servicemen were allowed to be brought home, particularly those from a wealthy background, the comradeship that had developed between them at the front would be lost.

By 1922, its work was endorsed at the highest level, with King George V’s pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Western Front.

The online collection features a series of photographs, striking for their crisp quality, capturing the visit of the King to CWGC’s earliest sites, accompanied by Sir Fabian Ware and Field Marshal Haig, Commander of the British armies in France and Flanders from 1915-18.

The royal itinerary included Tyne Cot at Passchendaele, destined to become the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world. 

It was George V who chose a former German blockhouse as the site for the cemetery’s Cross of Sacrifice.

George V's passport, issued for the tour of France and Flanders, listing his surname as 'The King' (Image © CWGC)

The monarch initially shared some of the scepticism about the Commission's aims. But at the end of his pilgrimage he delivered an eloquent verdict on what he'd seen: "I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the year to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war." 

The exhibition also focuses on famous individuals associated with the Commission’s work, among them the author Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son John at the Battle of Loos.

And it unearths stories of the first IWGC gardeners, who started to create the distinctive 'English country garden effect'  for the cemeteries and memorials.

Andrew Fetherston, Chief Archivist at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, says: "As the First World War came to an end, it was just the start of the monumental task of honouring the dead. Our rituals of remembrance are too often taken for granted, but this exhibition is a stark reminder that commemorating one million people equally, regardless of class and rank, was unprecedented and often very controversial.

"We’re excited to share our fascinating archive collection which casts fresh light on the creation of our iconic war cemeteries and memorials."

Visit Shaping our Sorrow on the CWGC website to view the exhibition.

See also A Guide to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, published in September 2018.

Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commisssion - CWGC

Images courtesy of CWGC

Posted by: CN Editorial Team