Written by Megan Kelleher.
As COVID-19 continues to be a key discussion point worldwide, the heritage sector is continuing to adapt to suit the needs of the public. One such organisation is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), who care for the graves and memorials of the 1.7 million men and women who died in the armed forces of the British Empire during the First and Second World Wars. While the CWGC’s work is often at the forefront of much of the commemorative services for key anniversaries of the two World Wars, much of the day to day work it conducts has only recently begun to be told to the public through their website and ever-increasing social media presence. Their digital output has grown dramatically in light of the current crisis, and details of a selection of some of these online resources are detailed below:
In late April, the CWGC announced that some case files that had been newly released contained thousands of letters, pictures and other papers that had been sent between the Commission and the next of kin of First World War dead. The digitised files contain details surrounding the different emotions families left behind were feeling, including the story of Charles Dickens’ grandson. The first wave of e-files have now been made freely accessible online and are part of a collection of nearly 3,000 files that have never been made publicly available before. Alongside these, a collection of more than 16,000 photographs held in negatives in the Commission’s archive have been digitised, thus providing a number of important resources for both research purposes and those interested in how families grieved in the aftermath of the First World War.
As part of their commemoration of many key historical battles and events, the Commission have often created thematic online exhibitions to coincide with these activities. These continue to be available on their website and are worth a visit in order to learn more about some of the casualties in the CWGC’s care. An example of this is ‘Shaping Our Sorrow’, launched in 2018, which explores the ways in which the Commission shaped remembrance after the First World War.
The Legacy of Liberation project was launched last year by the Commission to commemorate some of the upcoming 75th anniversaries. It includes a sound archive, where veterans and members of the public can upload their own audio reflections of the events of the Second World War and Commission sites, and a podcast series that provides an overview of the various campaigns and the Commission sites associated with them.
One of their most recent launches was the ‘Noor Inayat-Khan: A Woman of Conspicuous Courage’ exhibit. The digital exhibition at the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey was launched on 8th March 2020, International Women’s Day. With the temporary closure of many Commission sites during the lockdown, the exhibition is a way of digitally engaging with the life of Noor Inayat-Khan and the wider work of SOE during the Second World War. The exhibition also includes free resources for teachers to use in order to tell Noor’s story, along with information about other women the CWGC commemorates.
Wall of Remembrance
One of the Commission’s latest endeavours is to create a digital Wall of Remembrance that it is encouraging the public to engage with. Initially created to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, members of the public are able to submit their tributes or photographs by either uploading them onto the CWGC website or through using #ShareYourTribute on social media.
The Commission launched ‘The 1.7 Million Stories of the CWGC’ series in early April, which explores some of the stories of those who lost their lives as a result of the First and Second World Wars, in addition to providing a history of the wars and information about how the CWGC is still doing its work today.
The CWGC’s blog page provides information about the ongoing work that they are doing, in addition to telling the stories of some of the individuals in their care. These include posts about the origins of some of the personal inscriptions chosen by the casualty’s next of kin and background information about certain cemeteries.
Finally, the CWGC have created a series of online talks covering the work of the Commission and their role in commemoration. The talks cover a range of topics, from campaigns and battles to the horticultural side of their work and the archival material they hold. They are initially broadcast every Thursday at 14:30 BST via the Commission’s Facebook page, with recordings of them available after on the CWGC’s website.
These are just some of the examples of information and digital content that has been produced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for public consumption in order to provide an idea of the kind of information available through their website and social media channels. The content listed above is outside of the other information available that may be more familiar, such as the ‘Find War Dead’ and ‘Find Cemeteries and Memorials’ functions of the website that can be used for research purposes.
If there is any uncertainty about what is available through the website, using the search function on the CWGC’s website will usually provide the answers you need. Whether it is for research purposes or a leisure activity that you find yourself looking at the CWGC’s content, the resources they have made available can appeal to a range of different groups. If you are unsure of something or require more information, their enquiries team are always on hand to answer your questions.
Megan Kelleher is a PhD Candidate in the Centre for the History of War, Media and Society.
Image Credit: Tyne Cot Cemetery by Eric Huybrechts/Flickr, License: CC BY-ND 2.0.