Unlocking the Commission’s Past for the Present

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Archive Assistant Michael Greet talks about his work and his favourite artefacts from CWGC’s Shaping Our Sorrow Online Exhibition.

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Archives are the key to uncovering and understanding the lives and stories of the past. What we can learn from the past shapes our own understanding of our culture and our society today. Through the records held in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Archive, we can better understand how and why the Commission came into existence and developed into the organisation it is now.

It is vitally important for the CWGC that these records are properly cared for and it is my raison d'être as Archive Assistant to preserve and manage access to the CWGC’s Archive. An average day can involve things like archival research, accessioning and cataloguing records, providing content for social media, and assisting researchers in our Reading Room, some of whom have travelled from as far as Australia, Canada and Japan to undertake their own research.  

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Within the Archives Team, we regularly interact with researchers inside and outside the Commission with a broad range of interests, including military history, genealogy, academic research, or the work of our colleagues based all over the world. Working in an age dominated by the growth and use of the Internet has meant more communication through email and social media, which in turn has generated a demand for access to digitised archival material online, such as through the CWGC’s Archive Catalogue.

Digitisation reduces the need to access the original document as frequently and mitigates the risk of damage which can be caused by handling. It also ensures items in the collection are more readily available and searchable to those who are unable to visit the Reading Room themselves. However, with all the opportunities presented to archives through digitisation, there are several challenges, such as copyright, metadata, deterioration of digital media, and migration of data to new formats.  Some of the items we have digitised recently are very fragile and have been badly damaged in the past, so the utmost care has been required when handling items in this condition. We have then repackaged the contents into acid and lignin-free archival folders, replacing any rusted paper clips, staples or pins with more suitable materials.

The most recent digitisation project I have been involved with is providing content for the CWGC’s new online exhibition, Shaping Our Sorrow. This exhibition encourages a unique interactive experience by focusing on the five stages of grief as key themes. Below are a few of my favourite items featured in the exhibition which I helped to digitise:

1.      Report on the 1917 working party visit to France, signed by architects Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens.

This is a report of the visit by the working party in July 1917 which involved key Commission figures, such as Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens. The working party visited several sites on the Somme to establish the treatment of the cemeteries there and it is really interesting to see that the notions described in this document, such as marking each individual grave with a permanent marker, were laid down so early on and would develop into the core principles of the Commission’s design as we know them today.

2.      Photograph of Jack Kingston visiting the grave of his friend Ernest Goodall in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

Many of the Commission’s gardeners employed in France and Belgium after the First World War were war veterans, including Jack Kingston, who had lost his close friend Private Ernest Goodall in August 1918. This is a really moving image for me as it shows Jack solemnly standing by his friend’s resting place in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, among the hundreds of others buried there. Jack recalled his visit to Ernest’s grave in a postcard he sent home in 1923:

‘Dear Mum & Dad

Just a line to wish you a very Happy Easter. I am staying here for a couple of days and the weather is A1. I went and saw Ernie’s grave yesterday.

Love to all.

Jack xx’

3.      Oliver Holt’s notes on Sir Fabian Ware

These reminiscences written by Oliver Holt (Sir Fabian Ware’s Private Secretary) in 1985 capture a rare glimpse of the Commission in its early days, with such razor-sharp wit and meticulous attention to detail, as exemplified by Holt’s description of Rudyard Kipling:

‘(Kipling) was a compulsive ‘doodler’, making all sorts of little pen-and-ink sketches and abstract patterns on his name-card, over which his head would be closely bent; then, when he wished to make a remark he would throw up his head with a sudden movement, flourishing, as he did so, the longest, thickest, blackest and most beetling eyebrows I have ever seen; the movement itself and the glance that he shot through his steel-rimmed glasses seemed to make an almost audible clash.’