The CWGC is the guardian of an Historic Estate which was established almost 100 years ago during the First World War. The aim of the Commission is to care for, honour and perpetuate the sacrifice of the men and women of our forces who fell during the two world wars.
The values and aims of the Commission that were esablished in the Kenyon Report in 1918, the founding charter of the Imperial War Graves Commission, remain relevant to the management of our estate today.
As the Commission reaches its centenary year, we are aware that the heritage value of our cemeteries and memorials is no longer purely commemorative. Our Historic Estate is increasingly valued as an important historical, social and cultural record of the two world wars. Many of our cemeteries and memorials were designed by world-renowned architects (Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Reginald Blomfield, Sir Herbert Baker, Sir Robert Lorimer, Sir Edward Maufe, Louis de Soissons), sculptors (Henry Poole, Charles Wheeler, Joseph Armitage, F.V. Blundstone) and artists (John Hutton).
Many cemeteries and memorials are now being listed and some are being considered for World Heritage Site status. With such recognition comes an added responsibility in how we care for them.
The Commission has 23,000 sites across more than 150 countries. As a result, we have an understanding of local materials, tools and skills and legislation in our management and care.
As change and decay are inevitable, the preservation of our resources and landscape is difficult. Our objective is to prevent decay and manage these changes so they are carried forward for future generations to appreciate.
Our conservation philosophy is underpinned by the following principles:
- Equality of treatment of the dead and missing is of paramount importance
- The sites must have a sense of dignity and inspiration
- Commemorations must be legible
- The heritage value of the Historic Estate must be preserved for future generations
- The Historic Estate will be sustainably managed
- The cemeteries and memorials must look cared for
Find out how our conservation team cares for our sites.
Africa, Asia, Pacific Area: Jakarta War Cemetery, Indonesia
Jakarta War Cemetery in Indonesia was designed by Ralph Hobday, who was a Senior Architect for the Commission. The cemetery contains bronze plaques which commemorate 58 identified officers and men buried at Ancol, Indonesia, now a suburb of Jakarta. Two main grass avenues cross the site, one running north south and one east west and a Cross of Sacrifice stands at their intersection. The graves of members of the forces of Undivided India lie on a terrace in the southern part of the cemetery.
Colourful sub-tropical trees and shrubs at Jakarta War Cemetery
The graves are marked by bronze plaques set in concrete pedestals. The cemetery is covered with turf and planted with many colourful sub-tropical trees and shrubs.
The memorial entrance shelter
The memorial entrance shelter is in need of major repair as the reinforced concrete structure is failing and appears to have ruptured. The stone cladding is coming away and the tiles have crumbled and cracked in certain places. After an inspection it became apparent that the structure had been built using cement, not only in the core (sub-structure) but in the joints between the stone cladding.
To establish the extent of the problem we removed a section of the cladding and found that the internal structure looked unfit. We took core samples and had them tested for impurities, cement ingredients and structural integrity. The tests proved positive and we were able to proceed with the project.
Our team removed cladding
We recorded all the stone (size and position) to the external cladding. When we replace the external cladding, the new stone will be fixed like-for-like. Our goal is to repair the failing structure in a way that honours its historical significance to the site.
Mediterranean Area: Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa, Italy
Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, Italy, is steeply terraced and entered by passing through a large communal Italian cemetery. From November 1917 to the end of the war, Genoa was a base for Commonwealth forces.
Staglieno Cemetery contains 230 Commonwealth burials of the First World War. There are also 122 Second World War graves, most of them garrison burials, whilst others were brought in from the surrounding area. The 1939-45 plot was designed by architect Louis de Soissons. After the Second World War, Soissons’ firm designed nearly 50 war cemeteries for the Commission, predominantly in Greece and Italy.
Staglieno Cemetery prior to 1930. The image was taken during the initial phase of construction and shows the steepness of the cemetery
During a site inspection it was noticed that the brick boundary wall was starting to fail in certain places. Some bricks need to be replaced, others gently cleaned. The wall also needed to be repointed in places, along with the replacement cover of the parapets. This will ensure that the wall is secured for the future. All repairs will be done in line with our conservation philosophy and the best materials and techniques will be used.
Staglieno Cemetery today
Western Europe Area: Godezonne Farm Cemetery, Belgium
Godezonne Farm Cemetery in Belgium contains 79 First World War burials, 44 of them unidentified. The cemetery was designed by William Harrison Cowlishaw. It is a small, perfectly rectangular site that is surrounded by a masonry wall topped by white coping stones. The wall is constructed in different levels to adapt to the different heights of the terrain. Access to the cemetery is through a wrought-iron gate with bronze detailing.
The masonry of the old boundary walls has previously been repaired but not up to our high standards. The walls had crumbling brick faces, delaminating mortar, loose mortar, fissures and cracks and loose masonry and biological damage. The cement coating at the back of the wall was also cracked and loose.
Some of the boundary wall had been repaired in recent years but it was already showing several cracks. Work were carried out by restoration firm Restauraz and supervised by architect firm Ava Partners and the CWGC Works Department. Partly funded by Flemish Heritage, the work began in October 2016 and was completed in March 2017.
The boundary walls were repaired by taking out mortar joints completely, replacing damaged bricks and repointing as needed. Where restoration was not possible, the wall was rebuilt.
Original materials were used at Godezonne Farm Cemetery, including the Commonwealth brick which was made especially for the Commission.
The Commission cares for more than 1.1 million headstones and their legibility is key to our work. We are taking a more conservation-led approach to managing them, allowing them to age naturally while ensuring the legibility of the inscription.
The legibility of a headstone can vary according to the type of stone, the angle and depth of the incisions, light conditions, the cleanliness and the moisture content of the stone at the time of examination. Every headstone in the Commission’s care is inspected regularly to ensure that commemoration is still legible.
Repairing headstones and inscriptions are a key part of our work
The Commission’s headstones and stone structures are monumental and optimum legibility has never been our aim. Inscriptions should be readable at reasonable light levels and viewing distances by visitors.
The cleanliness of a headstone can affect legibility, but gentle cleaning is often all that is required. Headstones are not expected to look permanently as new, some soiling, marking, lichen etc. is to be expected as the stone is exposed to the elements. If a headstone falls below the acceptable levels of legibility then intervention is required.
In many cases, where the stone is basically sound, it is economically and environmentally good practice to re-engrave without removing the headstone. Re-engraving headstones is challenging work.
Some of the materials used are nearing 100 years of age, including many original First World War headstones. We have put in place guidelines to avoid unnecessary replacement of stone and carry out repairs (stone inserts, mortar repair etc.) or where possible re-engrave. With our conservation-led approach, replacement of a headstone should be the last option.
Where there is no choice but to replace the headstone a suitable replacement stone will be used. It has been a challenge to source suitable replacement stones when the original stones are no longer available. When the headstones are of the same stone type it gives the cemetery a uniformity which enhances our founding principles of equality of treatment. Therefore, we endeavour to source the most appropriate stone type, both visually and geologically.