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One million, one hundred thousand men and women lost their lives in the service of the British Empire during the First World War; in the Second, another six hundred thousand from all parts of the Commonwealth made the same sacrifice.
The First World War, which began as a war between professional armies, was very soon to be fought by millions of ordinary citizens turned soldier. Those who died could no longer be "shoveled into a hole ... and so forgotten" as had happened, to Thackeray’s indignation, at Waterloo, and in May 1917 a new organization, the Imperial War Graves Commission, was founded to provide permanent care for their graves and commemoration for the missing.
The Unending Vigil tells the story of the Commission – of its beginnings on the Western Front, with the efforts of one extraordinary man who conceived and directed it through to the conclusion of the Second World War, and of its work since then. Renamed in 1960 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, its operations today extend over 140 countries.
On behalf of the Commission, outstanding architects, sculptors, engineers, horticulturalists and men of letters combined to design war cemeteries and memorials that would last for perhaps a thousand years. After both wars, and often against great odds and in appalling conditions, the staff of the Commission, and in many cases themselves comrades of the dead, labored to fulfill those designs, turning scenes of desolation and horror into places of peace and haunting beauty. It was a task, Rudyard Kipling said, greater than that of the Pharaohs – "and they only worked in their own country". The Commission task was, and still is, worldwide.
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