There will be very few readers who are not familiar with the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). It is not so well known that working in association with them is The War Graves Photographic Project (TWGPP), a voluntary group whose aim is to extend the work of the CWGC by photographing every war grave and memorial worldwide. This joint venture was formally announced in November 2007 with the TWGPP website going live in February 2008.
The ethos of TWGPP is very simple: to enable families and researchers to obtain, via its website, a photograph of a grave or memorial which many cannot personally visit.
Initially the project’s brief was confined to commonwealth graves or memorials for WWI and WWII but the scope is now widened to include all nationalities and those who have died since then.
Currently the website contains well over a 1.6 million images taken from 23,000 cemeteries or memorials in over 150 countries. Photographing the beautifully maintained CWGC cemeteries is one thing, tramping through the undergrowth of oft-neglected churchyards or vast corporation cemeteries looking for a single – or scattered headstones – is another story altogether, as volunteers can testify with many a frustrating or amusing story.
Photographing war graves at Sangro River Italy.
The project has over 900 volunteers worldwide from all walks of life. All that is required is motivation, a digital camera and the CWGC location data supplied by the project’s coordinators. It is probably a fair assessment to say that this is a project which owes its ultimate true worth to modern technology: the facility to download from camera to computer to website with comparative ease and speed.
Sandra Rogers, working the rows at Heliopoli.
Requests on a daily basis are dealt with by Project Request Coordinator Sandra Rogers; the success rate is high given the numbers in the archive and the numerous letters of thanks are poignant, heartwarming and, in many instances, heartbreaking. These can be viewed on the site’s ‘Thanks’ Tab.
Occasionally we try to go that ‘extra mile’ to fulfill a request if the photograph has not yet been taken. One such occasion arose when we received the following letter from the granddaughter of Isabella Lindsay, aged 99:
‘…her only regret is that she has never been able to see her father’s grave in France. He died when she was nine (1918). We live in Australia. She is not one to ask for much. She is a survivor: she lost her father, her family home burnt down in Scotland, she emigrated to Australia when she was 11 with her mother and four sisters, had no education, cared for her ill younger brother, she lived with little and has given so much. I would like to give something back. It would help her get some closure. Can you help?’
Isabella’s father died in 1918 and is buried in St Pol British Cemetery, France, which is a bit off the beaten track. TWGPP’s nearest volunteer was on holiday at the time; another volunteer was 300km away – not exactly local. He did, however, consider this story to be newsworthy so he contacted local newspapers and without much persuasion a journalist offered to visit the grave of Petty Officer William Lindsay to lay flowers on the grave on Bella’s behalf. Within a few days the photographs were forwarded to Australia and when they were presented to Bella, who had been unaware of all these goings-on, her family videoed the extremely emotional occasion.
Steve Rodgers, Project Co-ordinator.
Some of the best moments are when we appear alongside the CWGC at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show in London. In February 2011, we attended our third event where the team re-named it the ‘Oh Wow!’ Show because that was the general reaction of those to whom we were able to show a photograph of great grandfather’s or uncle’s headstone or memorial inscription. A box of tissues always comes in handy!
Adding images to the website is an ongoing task. Ultimately the archive, when complete, will form a lasting record of all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and will be deposited with the CWGC to complement its own archive in due course.
Volunteers at work.
Further information about the project, can be viewed at www.twgpp.org.