This year’s Wolfson Lecture, on Friday 23rd July, was, as usual, sold out. We gathered to hear a talk entitled The Commonwealth War Graves Commission – what does it really do? delivered by the President of Wolfson, Sir Tim Hitchens KCVO CMG
Sir Tim, whose career before Wolfson had been as a British diplomat, has been a War Graves commissioner since 2019. He described the founding of the Commission in 1917 after a two-year campaign by Sir Fabian Ware: it was at first “The Imperial War Graves Commission” and had as its aim to recognise and commemorate all members of the armed forces and auxiliary services who died in the Great War. Its remit was later enlarged to include WWII, and today the Commission also acts under contract to the Ministry of Defence to look after some other graves from more recent conflicts. The founding principles were in particular egalitarian: all those who died abroad would be buried near where they fell and commemorated in the same way, regardless of rank. There would be no repatriation or special memorials for the wealthy or high ranking. The Commission has some 1.7 million graves in its care, mostly in Northern Europe but of course also elsewhere around the world in all parts reached by the two wars. In addition, there are the large numbers of those missing in battle whose names are recorded on vast monuments at places like Thiepval on the Somme and the Menin Gate at Ypres. The war graves with which we are familiar in Oxfordshire churchyards are of those who died in England from their injuries: these graves tend to be concentrated around military hospitals. Finally, there are the memorials, for instance those near naval and airbases, for those lost at sea and in the air.
We heard how the work of the Commission has changed over the years, from the early phase of collecting and reburying the bodies in military cemeteries (and it is still the case that about 100 bodies are found, identified where possible, and reburied with due honours every year), to the present day task – an enormous one – of caring for the graves and memorials and making them accessible to modern day visitors. The Commission’s sites still serve to commemorate individuals and not to argue any political case around the wars, but nevertheless they are a lasting and powerful monument to the horror of war.
There was a lively and interested discussion, and then we repaired, as is our wont, to the lawns by the Cherwell for a relaxed reception.
The Trust is grateful to Sir Tim for his time and effort generously given and to the College for their expert support throughout the event.