A centenary of caring for Commonwealth war graves


The Imperial War Graves was established by the signing of the Royal Charter on May 21, 1917 establishing the Imperial War Graves Commission with the name changed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by way of a supplementary Royal Charter dated June 8, 1964.

South Africa is a founder member of the Commission writes Charles Ross, former secretary of the South African Agency of the Commonwealth war Graves Commission.

The duties of the Commission are to mark and maintain graves of members of the Armed Forces of the Commonwealth who died in the two World Wars, to build memorials to those with no known grave and to keep records and registers.

The work of the Commission is guided by principles including that each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name either on the headstone on the grave or by an inscription on a memorial, the headstone and memorial should be permanent, headstones should be uniform and there should be no discrimination made on account of military or civilian rank, race or creed.

May 21 this year marks a century of caring for Commonwealth war graves from both the First and Second World Wars as stated in the Royal Charter. Today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for 1,7 million casualties in 153 countries with more than 23 000 staff members. More than 800 000 are buried in more than 24 000 burial grounds while more than 700 000 are commemorated on memorials.

A total of 21 811 South Africans of all races are commemorated by the Commission. This represents 9 903 from World War One, 6 706 identified burials and 3 197 commemorated on memorials, and 11 908 from World War Two, 10 020 identified burials and 1 888 commemorated on memorials.

Six hundred and twelve identified and three unidentified South African Commonwealth war casualties from the First World War and 16 from World War Two are buried in the Dar es Salaam War Cemetery in Tanzania while 486 identified and nine unidentified South African Commonwealth war casualties from World War Two are buried in the El Alamein War Cemetery in Egypt.

As regards memorials 833 South African Commonwealth war casualties from World War One are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial in France while 1, 229 South African Commonwealth war casualties from World War Two are commemorated on the El Alamein Memorial in Egypt.

The South African Agency, established in 1922, is responsible for Commonwealth war graves and memorials in South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, St Helena Island and Ascension Island. This comprises 8 328 identified Commonwealth burials and 495 Commonwealth casualties on memorials. In addition the Agency is responsible for the graves of 136 foreign nationals and 22 947 Non-Commonwealth burials, British graves from the South African War 1899 – 1902, in 1 119 burial sites.

The burial sites in South Africa range from war cemeteries, military plots and single graves in municipal and other cemeteries to single graves along railway lines or dirt roads or on family farms.

The war cemeteries include the Palmietkuil South War Cemetery and Memorial near Springs, Potchefstroom Military Cemetery near Potchefstroom, Hamilton War Cemetery in Bloemfontein and the Dido Valley Naval Cemetery in Simon’s Town. Military plots are in the Maitland Cemetery in Cape Town, West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, Stellawood Cemetery in Durban, Plumstead Cemetery in Cape Town and the Thaba Tshwane New Cemetery in Tshwane.

The Palmietkuil South War Cemetery and Memorial contains the graves of 215 members of the Native Military Corps and two members of the Essential Services Protection Force. A hundred and twenty-two casualties are commemorated on the memorial in the cemetery, 103 from the Native Military Corps, seven each from the Cape Corps and the Indian and Malay Corps, four from the Essential Services Protection Force and one from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.