International differences

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.

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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.

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Hindu cremation

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.

The national emblems of Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa. Also shown are several regimental emblems for the Indian Army. The artwork was created by the graphic designer Leslie MacDonald Gill. © CWGC.


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”.

Architectural plans for several national memorials, alongside the finished product today

Below: The Delville Wood South African National Memorial (1926): Another Herbert Baker design, this honours all South African personnel who died during the war – totalling around 10,000. Unlike other memorials on the Western Front, this one has no names inscribed on it; many of them instead feature on scattered ‘battlefield memorials’ to the missing alongside British names.

Delville Wood elevations

Delville Wood South African National Memorial

Below: The Chunuk Bair New Zealand Memorial (1925): One of four memorials erected to commemorate New Zealand soldiers who died on the Gallipoli peninsula and whose graves are not known. It bears 849 names.

Chunuk Bair elevations and section

Chunuk Bair Memorial

Below:The Canadian National Vimy Memorial (1936): Commemorates all missing members of the Canadian forces in France during the First World War. A competition to design the memorial was held in Canada, and won by non-Commission architect Walter Seymour Allward.

Vimy elevation


Below: The Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial (1927): This memorial to the missing honours over 4,700 Indian soldiers. It was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, and the central column bears the same inscription in English, Urdu and Gurmukhi: “God is One, His is the Victory”.

Neuve Chapelle sections

Indian Memorial, Neuve Chapelle, France

Below: The Thiepval Memorial (1932): One of Lutyens’ most famous designs, it commemorates over 72,000 missing servicemen of the British and South African armies who died in the Somme region between 1915 and March 1918.

Brick and white stone gateway with pillars, laurel wreaths, inscription and white stone lion on top of gate, church spire in the background through gateway

The Menin Gate (1927): Created by Blomfield, the Menin Gate is dedicated to those of every nationality except New Zealand who died in Belgium and have no known grave. It contains over 54,000 names.