In 1917 a special Commission, called the Imperial War Graves Commission, was set up in the United Kingdom by Royal Charter, and was given the task of commemorating by name every serviceman and woman of the Commonwealth who lost his or her life in the Great War of 1914–18. Many of the graves of the war dead were located in churchyards and other established cemeteries, but a great number were scattered throughout the world's battlefields. In addition, there was a large number of casualties who had no known grave. In the course of its work the Commission set up special “war” cemeteries into which it concentrated all those graves which were either too dispersed to be properly maintained, or were not already in a proper cemetery. The Commission erected headstones on every grave and set up arrangements for the maintenance of each grave “in perpetuity”. It also arranged for the erection of special memorials on which were inscribed the names of all those who gave their lives and whose graves are unknown.
At a later date the Commission's activities were extended to include the dead of the Second World War. It now has in its charge over one and a quarter million war graves, located in almost every country in the world. New Zealand was not a war theatre in either of the world wars; there were therefore comparatively few New Zealand service personnel who lost their lives (by sickness or accident) within the country. For that reason there was no need for the Commission to set up “war” cemeteries here. Instead, it arranged for the Government to assume responsibility for the erection of headstones, the maintenance of graves, and the provision of memorials to those who lost their lives in or around our shores and who have no known grave. For the purpose of carrying out this work the Department of Internal Affairs set up a War Graves Branch.
The responsibility of the Commission – which was renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1959 – extends only to those who lost their lives during wartime or who died within a short time thereafter as a result of their war service.
In New Zealand, however, the task of commemorating those who sacrificed their lives for their country in time of war was carried a stage further by the decision to commemorate the war veterans who died in the post-war years – irrespective of whether death was due to their war service or to natural causes. For that purpose the Government, after discussions with the New Zealand Returned Services' Association, decided to create special servicemen's cemeteries. There are now 127 of them throughout the country. They are similar in principle to the Commission's cemeteries overseas, and they are available for the interment of personnel of the services and Merchant Navy of New Zealand, as well as those of other Commonwealth and allied countries who die in New Zealand, provided that they have had war service.
In addition to the two World Wars, war service includes service in the Maori Wars, the South African War, the Korean War, and the operations in Malaya.
The setting aside of these special cemeteries is a joint undertaking in which local bodies, branches of the R.S.A., and the Department of Internal Affairs take part. The land, generally a portion of a public cemetery, is donated by a local body at the request of the R.S.A.; it is developed and laid out by the Department. The day-to-day maintenance is undertaken either by the local body or the R.S.A. branch concerned with the assistance of an annual grant from the Department which also carries out major maintenance work as it becomes necessary.
There are 127 of these cemeteries in New Zealand and others are being provided as required. The majority are plaque cemeteries in which the individual memorial consists of a bronze plaque; many of the older ones, however, use headstones of natural or manufactured stone. As far as possible the principle of equality is maintained throughout each cemetery, no grave differing in character from its neighbour. For that reason the inscription on each plaque or headstone is standard, varying only in name and particulars of service. Plots are free and where death, irrespective of when it occurs, is due to or accelerated by war service, the plaque or headstone is also free. Where death is not due to war service, the memorial is supplied through the Department at a reduced price.
In addition to supervising servicemen's cemeteries throughout the country and arranging for the provision of plaques and headstones, the War Graves Branch maintains complete records of all New Zealand war dead who are buried overseas, and it supplies details for the information of relatives. A similar record is maintained for all post-war deaths within New Zealand.
The Department acts as the agent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all purposes in New Zealand, and the War Graves Branch distributes within the country the many publications which emanate from the Commission in the course of its work on war graves overseas. The Branch also arranges payment of New Zealand's share of the expenses incurred by the Commission in its work of caring for overseas graves and for the New Zealand Battle Memorials in France, Belgium, and Gallipoli.
In addition to its work on servicemen's graves, the War Graves Branch also assists in the maintenance of pioneer and other historical graves and monuments throughout the country.
by Alexander Russell, War Graves Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.