Secretary-General, Canadian Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Certainly. Thanks very much.
First of all, to reintroduce myself, my name is Brad Hall. I'm the secretary-general of the Canadian Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It's a title that perhaps suggests a large staff and a large salary to match. I want to assure you that neither is true.
At any rate, I'm here to talk about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The commission has a very clear mandate, which was set out when it was established by royal charter in the First World War.
Our duties are to mark and maintain the graves of the members of the forces of the Commonwealth who died during the two world wars; to build and maintain memorials to the dead whose graves are unknown; and to keep records and registers. This cost is shared by the partner governments—Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and South Africa—in proportions based on the numbers of their graves.
The war periods are very clearly defined: August 4, 1914, to August 31, 1921, and September 3, 1939, to December 31, 1947. They were developed by agreement and are based on the start dates of the two world wars, the official end dates of the wars—versus the armistice in World War I, November 11, for example—and a period that recognizes the long demobilization periods of the participating governments’ vast armed forces as well as later deaths due to service.
The commission’s work is based on a few fundamental principles. They are that each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name, either on the headstone over the grave or by an inscription on a memorial; that the headstones and memorials should be permanent; that the headstones should be uniform; and that there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race, or creed.
While these principles might seem obvious now, it is important to realize that before World War I there was a very strong social distinction in the manner of commemorating casualties of the then British Empire, and these principles recognized the common sacrifice of all who died regardless of their background.
These principles are also the fundamental reason why Canada, along with its Commonwealth partners, adopted the non-repatriation policy of its war dead—a policy Canada continued to follow, even for its peacetime casualties and indeed their dependants, until the 1970s. And finally, it's a principle the commission asked Canada to reaffirm when Canada made its request to the commission to repatriate the remains of an unknown soldier, and Canada did in fact do that in 2000.
The commission is financed in the main through annual grants from the participating governments, as I've said. Canada is the second-largest contributor, with an annual contribution of about 10%, or about $9.4 million for the present fiscal year.
For that, Canada’s 110,000 war dead are interred in 73 countries in some 6,500 cemeteries, of the 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead in 150 countries in 23,000 cemeteries, for which my organization is responsible. This dollar amount equates to a cost of some $85 per war dead commemorated to a standard that draws appreciative reviews from a varied constituency.
How long will the organization last? Our royal charter establishes us in perpetuity, and I would find it difficult, certainly in my lifetime, to believe that any government might put up its hand and be the first one to say, “We don't want to do this any more.” Commission employees consider our work to be a debt of honour, and I know that the vast majority of Canadians would agree that this is the right thing to do.
The commission is organized for operational purposes into areas or agencies, each of which reports to the commission’s head office in Maidenhead, just west of London, in the United Kingdom. The cemeteries and memorials are truly Commonwealth. They are not national. A national title within the cemetery name does not confirm a national responsibility or ownership.
To take two famous examples from a Canadian context, Beny-sur-Mer and Holten Canadian War Cemetery, for example, are commission cemeteries. Their maintenance and security of tenure with the host countries of France and the Netherlands respectively are with the commission, not with Canada. The responsibility for their upkeep rests with the commission.
Interestingly, from a Canadian point of view, there are only two commission cemeteries where only Canadians are buried--Agira, Sicily; and a small cemetery, Sunken Road, in Contalmaison, France.
In addition to our charter work, we do what we call “agency services”, which is basically contracting. Those are the tasks that we perform for the partner governments outside of our two world war charter tasks.
Again, from a Canadian perspective, for example, we do the routine maintenance of Vimy, Beaumont-Hamel, and other Canadian and Newfoundland World War I battlefield memorial sites in France and Belgium.
We also maintain some post-war graves of Canadian servicemen and dependants who were buried overseas when the Canadian non-repatriation policy was still in effect. This also includes some early UN casualties.
We have also been refurbishing for the Government of Canada Canadian graves located in South Africa, resultant from the South African or Boer War. We don't do Korea. We do, however, care for Commonwealth casualties of that war who died in Japan and are buried in Yokohama war cemetery.
Finally, under a contract with Veterans Affairs Canada, my office assists in the maintenance in Canada of some 205,000 graves of veterans who were buried or whose headstones were provided by the Government of Canada. I will talk a little bit more about this later.
Although we're strictly speaking a marking and maintenance organization, we are always involved to a small degree in the identification-of-remains cases from all of our participating governments. Again, within the context of Canada, the lead departments for such cases are the directorate of history and heritage in National Defence and the VAC's Canada Remembers division.
I should again stress that along with them, our policy remains constant: no exhumation for the purposes of identification or repatriation of remains is permitted.
As the secretary-general of the Canadian agency, my aim is to carry out the commission’s charter within North, Central and South America, some 16,400 war graves in 3,400 burial grounds in 32 countries. I run essentially a small business that equates more closely to a not-for-profit type of organization rather than a government department. Of course, we are all employees of the commission, not the Government of Canada. I employ eight permanent staff, and have a network of supervisors and contractors throughout these countries.
I'll give you some quick interesting facts related to Canada and Canadians in particular. Within Canada, my mandate encompasses the commemoration of some 18,000 war dead in 2,800 cemeteries and on five major memorials. One of these major memorials is on Sussex Drive, just opposite DFAIT or Old City Hall. It's the air force's memorial. You might want to have a look at that the next time you walk by.
We have one stone of remembrance in the Winnipeg Brookside Cemetery, as well as 26 crosses of sacrifice. These two structures are common to all war cemeteries overseas.
There are Commonwealth war dead in all U.S. states but three, Arkansas, Delaware, and Nevada; and all our provinces and the Yukon. They are mostly Canadian, but there are a significant number of other Commonwealth burials especially from World War II, the British Commonwealth air training plan, and the U.S. Arnold plan, plus American citizens who served with the Canadian Forces.
Why are there burials here even though there was a non-repatriation policy in effect? Disease, training accidents, and death subsequent to return but within the war years all contributed to the toll. There are more Canadian war dead in Canada than in Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Hong Kong combined. I often refer to members of my staff as caring for the hidden cost of war.
We answer a significant number of enquiries from members of the public. Again, you may be interested to know that, within my complement of staff, we have over 120 years of military service, which is quite useful when providing context to anyone who contacts us.
I mentioned earlier that as an agency service, we conduct maintenance to veterans' graves here in Canada under a formal agreement with VAC. Since January 1, 2004, we have been conducting a veterans’ graves inventory throughout the country on their behalf. We have just signed a five-year renewal of that contract to conduct 12-year cyclical inspections of veterans’ graves, to conduct maintenance within the wherewithal provided by department, and to continue our inventory of smaller cemeteries throughout Canada. To date we have found, photographed, and entered into a VAC database some 205,000 veterans graves in 6,500 cemeteries.
Finally, I guess it's worth mentioning that National Defence, VAC, Beechwood Cemetery, and my office link all our activities at what is now simply called the National Military Cemetery here in Ottawa.
To quickly summarize, the commission is not some sort of foreign body. In terms of policy of the war dead of the two world wars, the commission is Canada and Canada is the commission. It is a cooperative of like-minded countries that agreed to an approach towards equal treatment and commemoration of the war dead of the two world wars.
It's an organization with several oversights. There is a board consisting of the high commissioners of the participating governments resident in London, plus a distinguished group of folks appointed by royal warrant for fixed terms. The U.K. Ministry of Defence which is our largest contributor, conducts audits, as does our own U.K.-based private audit firm.
Finally, from a uniquely Canadian perspective, there is VAC, through whose votes the commission receives its funding. VAC staff scrutinize estimates and expenditures, and participate in our annual financial screening process.
Canada receives value for money. In addition to the $85-per-grave cost I talked about earlier, because of our worldwide organization and staff in place we're able to assist VAC in other non-charter tasks, such as those I mentioned, plus one-off projects that VAC might like to do. These include such things as grounds work at L'Abbaye d’Ardennes in France, the Green Park memorial in London, and indeed the Vimy restoration project, where we seconded a technician, provided advice, and trained those re-inscribing the names on that memorial.
Basically, my office and the rest of the commission seek to assist VAC in any manner the department thinks might be helpful. We are now seeking ways whereby we can complement the work being done by Veterans Affairs Canada for the commemorative period 2014-2018, the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
We are in continual contact with Canadians who seek information, and we provide a variety of pamphlets, information sheets, and web-based information—all in both of Canada's official languages. Increasingly, we are also speaking with members of the public whose relatives or friends survived the war but were subsequently buried at the expense of Canada for any number of reasons.
Our annual report is circulated in November. I will make sure all of you get a copy of this year's. I have brought a couple of samples and left them with the clerk.
When people ask me what the commission does, I tell them that my organization is the guardian of a significant piece of Canada’s heritage—its military heritage, and I am very proud to be a part of it.