Inevitably, there were differences of approach between the representatives of the British Empire’s ‘Dominions’ – Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa. Each had their own autonomous governments and arguably emerged from the war with a greater sense of national rather than imperial identity. India and other colonies, meanwhile, were represented by British government ministers at Commission meetings. Differences in religion and custom in India complicated the principle of uniform commemoration and the practicalities of burial itself. Consequently, a range of distinct policies and designs emerged through lengthy negotiation.
Pages from the ‘DGRE Technical Instructions’ pamphlet, rev. 1 February 1918. © CWGC.
The Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries (DGRE) – a military forerunner of the Commission tasked with searching for the dead – issued instructions on how to bury people of different faiths and nationalities. It included general advice like using a stake instead of a cross as a temporary grave marker, but also addressed specific burial rites. Regarding Chinese plots, for example, “The ideal site to secure repose and drive away evil spirits is on sloping ground with a stream below”.
Meeting minutes of the Indian War Graves Committee, 20 March 1918. © CWGC.
At the Commission, an ‘Indian Graves Committee’ was established to ensure proper consultation on the distinct requirements for different religious groups; issues of exhumation and cremation were particularly debated.
Unlike Britain, the Australian and Canadian governments elected to cover the cost for personal inscriptions. Meanwhile, the New Zealand government banned personal inscriptions altogether, believing they contravened the principle of equality.
There are more noticeable differences between each nation’s headstones, too. While British and Indian Army casualties have their regimental badges carved into the stone, each Dominion has its own national emblem.
Headstones could appear in different languages. We even have Chinese headstones honouring members of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) – volunteers who performed vital support roles on the Western Front. CLC workers were consulted on the traditional Chinese proverbs used on the headstones, including ‘A GOOD REPUTATION ENDURES FOREVER’ and ‘A NOBLE DUTY BRAVELY DONE’. Due to the intricacy of Chinese characters, it was felt that only CLC labourers could engrave the headstones, in what was described as “a work of love and not of finance”.
Each Dominion took a different approach to memorials: New Zealand opted for several small memorials spread geographically according to where their troops had fought, while Canada chose one enormous structure – the Vimy Memorial – to commemorate all its missing soldiers in France. South Africa had a national memorial at Delville Wood, but names of the missing were often listed alongside British names on memorials across the Western Front – the most famous being Thiepval Memorial.
Exceptionally, the Australian Commissioner argued that equality of treatment meant everyone who had died should have a marked grave, regardless of whether a body lay in it. This idea of ‘dummy graves’ was voted down, with Rudyard Kipling declaring “It gives me the creeps”.