I was pleased to accept an invite from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to visit graves from World War 1 and World War 2. Being very aware of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and also a history graduate I thought that I knew quite a lot about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the manner in which they went about their work during and following both conflicts. How wrong I was!
Having visited the battlefields of northern France and Belgium and also been to Cemeteries in Normandy, Crete and Israel I was under the impression that the work of the CWGC was primarily undertaken overseas. Again, I was hopelessly wrong. Apart from France, where there are graves or memorials to 575,169 British servicemen and women, the second largest number of graves and memorials cared for by the CWGC are actually here in the United Kingdom. A staggering 305,698 individual graves and named memorials are under the care of the CWGC here which is over 100,000 more than the number of graves and memorials cared for in Belgium which is the third most significant country for the work of the CWGC.
Here in the constituency of Aberconwy there are 161 war graves being maintained by the CWGC of which 92 are for servicemen who fell in the First World War and 69 who fell in the Second World War. These graves and memorials are scattered amongst 32 graveyards although 105 of these graves are located in the four graveyards I visited with Chris Hawes who works for the CWGC in North Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire.
Great Orme’s Head Cemetery
The first stop on my tour was at the Great Orme’s Head Cemetery which has 36 War Graves, 18 from the Great War and 18 from the Second World War. Whilst the majority of these graves are in the traditional design so well known to all of us that is not the case with all of them. The authorities allowed the families of servicemen to choose whether to accept the headstone designed by the authorities or to make their own arrangements. Interestingly even when the family opted for their own arrangements the CWGC continue to ensure that the name and rank of any servicemen are legible on such family gravestones.
The first of the gravestones so familiar to all of us were located together in a secluded part of the cemetery and were in the traditional Portland stone. All three were considered to be approaching the need for a replacement – an on-going process which occurs both overseas and here in the United Kingdom. Interestingly the gravestones from the Second World War are much more likely to be replaced than those from the First World War. The best guess as to why this is the case is that at the end of the Second World War the very best Portland stone was reserved for use in the re-building of London whilst the CWGC were provided with an inferior product. The policy is clear, if the insignia, rank, name or dedication is in any way damaged then a replacement headstone will be provided.
For a North Walian such as myself with a family background in the slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog and the Nantlle Valley I was staggered to see the simple gravestone design known to all of us in Welsh slate. A fine example on the Great Orme was for a Canadian Airman with the Maple Leaf stunningly re-produced in the slate.
It is a source of some pride to state that the CWGC, as far as Chris is aware, have never needed to replace a slate headstone. My grandfather from Blaenau Ffestiniog would be proud of that!
Two gravestones commemorate the lives of rather remarkable individuals;
Major Charles Michael Anderson Cummins (d. 20 March 1944)
Two years prior to his death he was subject to a citation for his bravery which reads like an extract from one of my boyhood war comics.
“While in Command of a platoon manning the TA KALI Aerodrome Defence Posts he showed outstanding devotion to duty. At about 19.30hrs on the 20th of March 1942 a Spitfire, one patrol bowzer and the ammunition van of No.126 Squadron RAF near Post TK14 were set on fire by enemy bombs. The glare lit up the aerodrome and served as a beacon for further attacks. Immediately the first lull in the bombing came Lt Cummins got his P Sgt and went to put the fire out. He collected an RAF Sgt on the way and together the three extinguished the fires in one and a half hours by heaping earth on the flames. The task was made hazardous by ammunition exploding in the van but the work proceeded without regard for their personal safety. The air officer commanding complimented them on their work at the time. Lt Cummins also showed untiring zeal in visiting constantly his posts on all the days of the attacks on the aerodrome. His coolness, steadiness and cheerfulness helped to maintain the morale of his men”
Captain Gwyn Lloyd James (d. 23 September 1940)
Educated at Ysgol John bright in Llandudno Gwyn attained a First Class Honours science degree from the University of Wales in Bangor before joining the army with the rank of second lieutenant on his 20th birthday. In the Royal Artillery he specialised in bomb technology and was a senior ballistics officer at the regiment’s ‘Experimental Establishment’ for three years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Captain James was killed, aged 36, in September 1940 whilst “undertaking work specialist work of considerable importance”. He was buried with full military honours his body being carried on a gun carriage draped with the Union flag. At the time of his death he was living in Craig y Don with his wife, Olive and their two children.
Leaving the Great Orme Cemetery on a beautiful sunny morning we headed to Llanrhos churchyard where a further 25 war graves are maintained. In Llanrhos 19 date back to the First World War and a further six from the Second World War. Again the graves are a mixture of Portland stone, Welsh slate and family graves where the inscription is maintained by the CWGC.
A poignant moment however was spotting the well maintained grave of a war widow which proudly mentioned her husband who passed away on active service. Despite the willingness to care for private gravestones in addition to the traditional headstone the CWGC do not care for headstones such as this one since, despite the name and rank of the individual being on the headstone, it is not their actual grave.
Our next stop was the cemetery at Dwygyfylchi and it was stunning in the spring sunshine. What a beautiful and peaceful location. In all there were a further 23 graves here, 13 from the First World War and a further 10 from the Second World War. One remarkable grave was that of Lt Col. Edmond Williams St Vincent Ryan who did of his wounds at the age of 59 in August 1919. A Medical Officer with a long career of service he had also served with distinction during the Boer War. The obvious question for me however was the date of his passing on the 24th of August 1919. Clearly having survived the War he succumbed to his wounds some nine months later.
This led to a discussion as to who was considered a casualty of war and as with everything it transpires that there was a clear cut-off point at which you could no longer be considered a casualty of either war. For those who served in the First World War they would not be seen as a casualty of that conflict if the succumbed to injuries or wounds after the 31st of August 1921 whilst for the Second World War the date was set at the 31st of December 1947. I wonder whether this decision had an impact on the pensions afforded to their widows if the individual subsequently succumbed to their injuries?
St. Agnes Cemetery, Conwy
Our final stop was at the St. Agnes Cemetery in Conwy where a further sixteen servicemen are buried. Depressingly no fewer than eight of these graves have been lost. Yes, lost. I was quite amazed at this and not a little depressed at the thought that young men who served their country could be buried at their local Cemetery and subsequently their actual burial position lost. In view of the fact that the CWGC know that they were buried here but are unable to locate the actual graves a memorial stone for the eight has been erected of Portland Stone in a quiet corner of the Cemetery.
Walking around to see the eight remaining graves I was moved by the Gravestone of D.C. Fryer who died of his wounds 24th of July 1944 at the age of 20. What was moving was the fact that his gravestone also recorded the death of his brother; Arthur Fryer who was killed in the line of duty in 1940, also aged 20. What an unbearable loss for the parents – two sons, four years apart barely out of their teenage years. What a tragedy.
All in all I was both moved and inspired by this quick overview of the work of the CWGC here in Aberconwy. We rightfully remember the fallen of both World Wars and I have and will again pay for my children to visit the battlefields of Belgium and France as part of their history course but we seem to neglect the very history which lies here, in front of us and within our individual communities.
As a result of the educational morning spent with the CWGC I will be writing to all the Primary schools located within the communities which have war graves within their boundaries and also to the town and community councils that are similarly affected.
As part of our impending commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War it would be suitable and appropriate to commemorate and respect the fallen of both World Wars and all other conflicts who are buried within local cemeteries and churchyards.
For more information about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
If you would like a list of all the Commonwealth War Graves in the Constituency please contact my office who would be delighted to assist.