The Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Getting Ready for the Centenary of the Great War
The 14 – 18 Centenary marks perhaps the biggest operational challenge faced by the CWGC since the end of the Second World War. It is a challenge that has united all staff to deliver a solution that will both honour those who died; and engage a new generation in the importance of remembrance.
In a very real sense the graves, cemeteries and memorials maintained by the Commission may be the only physical reminder left of the First World War and, more importantly, of its human cost. In France alone over 570,000 Commonwealth war dead are commemorated at almost 3,000 locations. Inevitably they, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), will be at the heart of events to mark the centenary of the Great War.
Ensuring our locations are ready for the centenary is perhaps the biggest single operational challenge we have faced since the end of the Second World War. We are committing major internal resources to a coordinated programme that will facilitate the staging of commemorative events at the cemeteries and memorials; enhance the understanding and experience of visitors to these places; and leave a lasting cultural legacy.
It is the CWGC’s aim to honour those who died but also to engage a new generation in the importance of remembrance.
Throughout the 14 – 18 period, France and Belgium in particular are likely to see visitor numbers on an unprecedented scale, with the cemeteries and memorials playing host to many commemorative events – be they regular, small-scale occurrences, or one-off larger centenary events.
The CWGC is already gathering as much information as possible about these events.
It is the aim that, with sufficient communication and co-ordination between the numerous interested parties, as well as prior planning and proper foresight, we will effectively manage such a large influx of visitors and ensure their needs are met.
It is not enough however, for the CWGC to simply record and monitor the increase in visitor numbers over the 14 – 18 period – we need to understand the reasons for the change.
Personal pilgrimage is still important but is perhaps no longer the single largest factor in deciding to take a battlefield tour. CWGC research shows that growth in visitor numbers is not connected to the search for a specific relative but is instead linked to historical awareness and education.
As a result, work has already started on a major interpretive programme, with visitor information panels being installed at 400 cemeteries and memorials across the battlefields of the First World War and 100 sites in the UK. The panels include general information about the CWGC and the historical context of the cemetery or memorial. The panels also feature Quick Response codes to allow visitors to access the stories of some of the individuals commemorated at the site via their phone or other mobile device.
The panels were successfully piloted at ten sits which make up the Forgotten Front Remembrance Trail in Northern France. The current objective is to produce panels for 100 locations across France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Turkey by the end of May 2013.
Beyond the information panel programme, the CWGC has devised a new education strategy.
In order to inform this strategy, the Commission conducted a survey on public opinion of the centenary.
The survey revealed a clear divide in how the public rate their First World War knowledge in relation to their age, with younger people considering they knew far less than older generations.
But lower levels of knowledge did not translate to lower levels of interest.
For example, only one in five of those surveyed felt that there is sufficient awareness of the contribution of the other Commonwealth countries to the war. However, nearly nine out of 10 people surveyed, and significantly four out of five 18 – 24 year-olds, believe that the centenary should be marked.
From this, we conclude that there is no significant decrease in appetite to visit war graves amongst the younger generation, they simply need the education and information to help them do so.
This is exactly the sort of endorsement the CWGC needs in order to engage with future generations ahead of 14 – 18, and by engaging that generation in the achievements and sacrifices of our forbears we will ensure these sacrifice s are never forgotten.