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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 9, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 09 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Digital Connectivity, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-19234, in the name of Maurice Corry, on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in honouring the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died during the First and Second World Wars, through construction and perpetual maintenance of war cemeteries, memorials and plots; understands that this work consists of immaculately planned and groomed landscapes and the conservation of headstones and memorials through teams of specialists around the world; acknowledges the extensive effort that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission makes to properly identify and respectfully bury all remains, ensuring that every individual is memorialised by name whether it be on a personal headstone or memorial; commends these vital efforts by the Commission in remembering the fallen; understands that over 175,000 Scots are respectfully commemorated and remembered by the commission in foreign countries, while over 20,000 of the total war graves cared for by the commission are spread across 1,200 locations in Scotland, including in West Scotland, and notes calls for all MSPs to join the Commission in its active remembrance of all those who paid the ultimate price.


I am delighted to bring this subject to the chamber today. I thank members from throughout the Parliament for their support for my motion. I welcome Patricia Keppie from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who has come here to listen to our debate. I appreciate all the work that she does and the role that she plays for the commission throughout Scotland.

The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission certainly deserves our appreciation and support. As an intergovernmental charitable organisation supported by six independent member states, the commission’s role is to record and maintain war memorials and the graves of those from across the Commonwealth who died in the first and second world wars.

We can trace the inception of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission back to the first world war. Sir Fabian Ware, the commander of a British Red Cross unit, saw the magnitude of loss felt through the war, and he recognised the important need to ensure that, wherever possible, those soldiers who died were not lost but were laid to rest respectfully, as they deserved.

By 1917, that work, under the title of the Imperial War Graves Commission, was officially established by royal charter, and the commission was tasked with gathering and recording details of the war dead. By the end of the war in 1918, 587,000 graves had been identified, with a further 559,000 individuals registered as having no grave. With war graves spread across all the areas that had experienced the catastrophic impact of war, many individuals were either buried in unidentified locations or—where the fighting had been at its most intense—left unburied. It is in that depressing context that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set out to honour those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Through the sensitive process of exhumations and reburials, the group began the meticulous process of recording and archiving soldiers’ details, the results of which we rely upon so much today. The commission also allows for the remembrance of those who died in war but who were never found. The memorial to the missing provides a focal point for individuals who have no known grave to ensure that they are properly commemorated and are not forgotten.

It is abundantly clear that commission workers take great care in tending to the memorial sites, as is evident through their horticultural care. The commission rightly prides itself on employing horticultural experts across more than 150 countries—individuals who are incredibly mindful of being sensitive to the look and feel of the memorials and war graves. For instance, in Gurkha cemeteries, experts planted Nepalese seeds, and in Dieppe in France, one can find Canadian maples to commemorate the fallen Canadian soldiers who were laid to rest there. The task of preserving and maintaining those peaceful places of remembrance falls to a group of more than 900 gardeners, whom the commission employs. The efforts of those individuals deserve to be commended, and I gladly do that today.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has recognised the impact of architectural design from the beginning. In its commemorative planning it utilised a wealth of skills and experience by having three well-known principal architects: Sir Reginald Blomfield, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker. Their work culminated in making enduring memorials to the war dead that are recognisable across the world. Examples include the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres in Belgium and the India Gate. Sites such as those point towards the enduring legacy of sacrifice, and they are visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Perhaps the two most recognisable and visible features of Commonwealth war grave cemeteries are the war cross, designed by Blomfield, and the stone of remembrance, designed by Lutyens. Blomfield’s war cross was adopted as a fixture of memorials and war graves across the Commonwealth as early as 1917, and more than 1,000 crosses were erected in France and Belgium alone.

The stone of remembrance is designed to represent all faiths and none, and stands as a symbol of common sacrifice. Poignantly, Rudyard Kipling, who was brought in by the commission as a literary advisor, suggested the inscription on the stone, taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus:

“Their name liveth forever more.”

Of course, those architects could not carry out their work without a team of assistant architects, many of whom had first-hand experience of war. Surely, their personal insights were reflected in the sensitive design, befitting all those who died in service to their country.

Equality is at the core of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Neither rank nor race matters: every individual across the Commonwealth is commemorated equally, without bias.

At its root, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission recognises the importance of providing a focal point for remembrance and commemoration. The monumental scale of loss through war, particularly evident in the aftermath of the first world war, left countless families bereaved and a grieving nation. For loved ones especially, a respectful memorial—one that encourages remembrance and pays tribute with great care—can bring the closure that they need.

Today, the relevance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is in no doubt. Its vision for the future is consistent with the ethos that has always underpinned its work: to commemorate servicemen and women from across the Commonwealth who fell during the first and second world wars. It still seeks to ensure that archives and records are preserved safely and, by relying on an experienced and proficient team, that war cemeteries and memorials are maintained with the utmost care.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission highlights an amazing depth of commitment and care, both by the many soldiers who gave their lives for peace and by those who maintain their final resting places. I am sure that future generations will continue to be grateful for the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in ensuring that

“Their name liveth forever more.”


I thank Maurice Corry for bringing this debate to the chamber. I enjoyed his opening contribution, and the knowledge that he has shared.

As many members will know, 2020 marks the 103rd anniversary of the Imperial War Graves Commission, which is now of course called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, being established. It was founded in 1917 with the founding principles that: each of the dead should be commemorated by name on a headstone or memorial; headstones and memorials should be permanent; headstones should be uniform; and there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed. Those principles are as relevant today as they have ever been, powerfully declaring that each life lost is worth no more or less than the next—no matter whose.

The role of the commission today is in preserving the memory of 1.7 million people who died fighting in the horror of the two world wars of the previous century. I understand that, where remains of a military person found are not from either of the world wars, it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence to arrange for a military funeral. However, for a fallen person of the first and second world wars, that is the responsibility of the commission.

That responsibility is carried out with dedication and commitment at around 23,000 locations in 154 countries around the globe. That highlights the significance of the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and how much of an undertaking the commemoration and memorialisation of our fallen soldiers is.

In Scotland alone, there are around 1,275 Commonwealth war grave sites. They range from military cemeteries owned by the commission to religious sites and those run by local authorities. The number includes 240 war graves in the Stirling area, an example being Ballengeich cemetery, which sits in the shadow of the historically significant Church of the Holy Rude and of Stirling castle in Stirling’s old town. It is the final resting place of 58 people who fell during the two world wars.

Stirling and Scotland suffered a tremendous loss of life during those wars. I am hugely grateful that the commission was created in order to ensure that there would be an official body tasked with commemorating the ultimate sacrifice made by so many.

Of course, a major part of the role of the commission is in maintaining the graves and memorials. All of us in the Scottish Parliament take part in annual commemorations for the war dead. In my constituency, the Scottish Government helped to fund extensive repair work on the cenotaph in Stirling city centre. That is another example of just how important commemorative sites and the Commonwealth war graves are in preserving the memory and lessons of the past.

The first world war ended over a century ago, but to this day, the annual ceremony is a very sobering moment. It is a chance to reflect with others on the sacrifice made by so many so that today’s and future generations could live with the freedoms that we often take for granted.

I would like to conclude by going over some numbers once again as they are worth repeating. There are: 240 war graves in the Stirling area; over 1,275 commission sites across Scotland with 20,000 war graves; 1.7 million graves worldwide of which 175,000 are of Scots; and 23,000 sites around the globe in 154 separate countries. Those figures alone tell of the scale of the two world wars.

The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is hugely important, not just in honouring the dead but in highlighting the devastating cost of war. Generations throughout the previous century had their lives torn apart by two world wars. I hope that none of our generations today, or in the future, will ever again know that horror.


I thank my colleague Maurice Corry for bringing this important debate to the chamber. As the years pass and the world wars become a more distant memory, it is important that the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission continues, so that we remember our war dead. Our war graves and memorials put into perspective the huge loss of life experienced in two world wars.

As Bruce Crawford has already said, the CWGC honours 1.7 million men and women who died in the armed forces, at 23,000 locations and in more than 150 countries and territories. Taken as a whole, that is the equivalent of managing 994 football pitches, which is no small undertaking.

When I was serving with the Army in Egypt, I visited the El Alamein war cemetery, which is cared for by the commission. There are 11,872 Commonwealth soldiers buried there, and a simple online search will enable anyone to find all their details: their country of origin, regiment and family. The way in which we inter our war dead does not glorify war but is a respectful way of remembering those who gave their all. When I was in El Alamein, I also visited the German war memorial. The German War Graves Commission does an equally good job, and it was an important moment of reflection for me. In peace time, it is right that we remember that we do not want war and that every side suffers.

I will recount a brief story of something that happened in 1983, when I was serving with a Commonwealth military training team in Uganda. The then high commissioner asked whether, if I was passing, I could visit a site—I think that it was called Simba Hill—to view a graveyard that apparently was in poor repair. The request was from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as the site was the resting place of a Ugandan soldier who was killed in the first world war.

The request was not without issue. To put it mildly, the area was interesting and one that I would have normally avoided. I still wonder today what the locals thought was going on when four heavily armed soldiers, who were clearly identifiable as Commonwealth soldiers, arrived asking directions to a Commonwealth war grave. It was clear that no one was going to offer to take us there, and, in most cases, they left in a rush, looking less than happy.

When we eventually found the site, it was an overgrown mess, which was unsurprising given the eight years of Idi Amin’s rule and the on-going civil war. I reported back to the high commissioner. Some months later, he sought me out and showed me some pictures of the site, which had been completely transformed. When I asked who had done that, he answered simply, “The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.” From that day on, I have had the greatest respect for the organisation, knowing that it takes every care to look after our war dead.

I also point out that the CWGC does much more than tend cemeteries to ensure that the sacrifices that were made in the two world wars are never forgotten. The commission set up its own charitable foundation to engage with young people on the story of the two world wars. The foundation supports educational initiatives, intern programmes and community activities, which not only honour the 1.7 million people whom the CWGC commemorates but equip our young people with new skills.

I thank the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for its tireless and dedicated care of war cemeteries and memorials around the world as well as in the Highlands and Islands. On one occasion, I contacted the commission about a site in Arnisdale, where the war grave was in less than perfect condition, and it was quickly repaired. I am pleased to report that the work was undertaken by Highland Council, which should have undertaken that work in the first place.

Overall, I have nothing but praise for the commission. The immaculate upkeep of graves honours the sacrifices that were made for us, and the commission’s archives clearly demonstrate the costs of war.


I am pleased to speak in the debate and congratulate Maurice Corry on securing it. I welcome to the public gallery Patricia Keppie of the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when she took the time to come to the Scottish Parliament last year to highlight the important work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

As we have heard, the commission is an intergovernmental organisation comprising six member states. Its principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves and places of commemoration of the Commonwealth war dead of the first and second world wars.

The commission is currently responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.7 million deceased Commonwealth military personnel in 154 countries. As we have also heard—I repeat this because, as Bruce Crawford said, it is important to highlight the scale of the work and remit of the commission—it is responsible for the care of the war dead at more than 23,000 separate burial sites and the maintenance of more than 200 memorials worldwide. The significance of the commission’s remit and responsibilities is clear.

Aside from looking at the statistics, it is important to emphasise that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission carries out its work and discharges its responsibilities admirably and in a dignified way, which we should commend. A lot of care and pride is taken in the sensitive work that it does.

All Commonwealth war dead are commemorated individually and equally, so that their name—if known—appears either on a headstone at an identified burial site or on a memorial. The war dead are treated equally, irrespective of military rank, race, creed or any other consideration, and the headstones, cemeteries and memorials are perpetually maintained and carefully tended. Further, the commission has constructed or commissioned memorials to commemorate the dead who have no known grave. The largest such memorial is in France—the Thiepval memorial to the missing dead of the Somme.

It is important to mention that the commission maintains more than 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and is responsible for the graves of 67,000 Commonwealth civilians who died as a result of enemy action in the second world war. That commemoration is achieved by the entering of names in the civilian war dead roll of honour in St George’s chapel, in Westminster abbey.

In Scotland, there are some 20,000 war graves that are cared for by the commission. In my constituency of Cowdenbeath, there are 106 Commonwealth war graves. Those are to be found in Ballingry, Aberdour, Cowdenbeath, Cardenden, Inverkeithing, Rosyth, Lochgelly and Dalgety Bay. Prompted by this afternoon’s debate, my new year’s resolution is to visit each and every one of those graves in my constituency to pay my respects. Perhaps the minister would care to join me on one of my visits, as I am sure that such participation would be very much appreciated by my Cowdenbeath constituents.

I thank the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all that it does to ensure that the countless lives that were lost in the first and second world wars are not just commemorated but commemorated with the dignity that they very much deserve.


I, too, congratulate Maurice Corry on introducing this important debate. I also congratulate him on, and thank him for, his unstinting commitment to the issue, and to marking and recognising the role of all our armed forces personnel, current and former. As all the speakers have, I congratulate the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on its fantastic work, and all the volunteers and activists who are involved in that work to honour the 1.7 million men and women who lost their lives in defence of our country in both the first and second world wars.

It is really important, particularly for future generations, that we recognise the role of those who have fallen and never forget them. In the process, we never forget not only what the impact and consequences of war have meant for our history, but what they mean for our future.

In our increasingly divided times, it is important to remember how we got here, and the fact that we had Commonwealth citizens from right across the globe, people of all faiths and none, standing shoulder to shoulder in both the first and second world wars—particularly when we have the narrative of the far right being established across the United Kingdom. That narrative wants to demonise migrants and people from ethnic minority communities and certain faiths, and forgets that we are what we are as a country because of the sacrifices of people from various backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths.

Four million Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and people of other faiths from South Asia alone fought in the two world wars. In defence of this country, 74,000 members of the British Indian Army lost their lives in world war one, and more than 87,000 in world war two. That is why, working in partnership with Colourful Heritage and others, we are trying to establish the first ever memorial here in Scotland to the British Indian Army soldiers and the contribution that they made. From my discussions with the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, I know that that is supported in principle by both him and the Scottish Government. I hope that we can make that a reality, if not this year, then next year.

One thing that we have already done is hold the first ever memorial service for British Indian Army soldiers at the war graves in Kingussie. The first service took place in 2018 and, last year, the service was attended by the minister for veterans, which I know was greatly appreciated by not only people who have heritage and history with the armed forces, but our wider communities in Scotland.

I will share one story that answers the call from the far right. Those war graves have only recently been discovered in Kingussie, and only recently had a multifaith and multi-ethnicity memorial service that brought together charities, the British armed forces, the Scottish Government and other representatives. However, I want to thank one woman in particular—Isobel Harling. She is a Kingussie local who is 95 years old and whose brother served in the Royal Air Force. For more than 60 years, she has personally been tending to and looking after those graves, showing the fantastic recognition that people of all faiths and none have for the role that was played by all those people in defence of this country in world wars one and two.

In the coming months, working with Colourful Heritage—which wants to capture, celebrate and inspire future generations—the British armed forces, the Scottish Government, and the minister directly, I hope that we can build that lasting memorial to the British Indian Army here in Scotland.

Again, I congratulate Maurice Corry on introducing the debate and thank the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for its tremendous work. I look forward to working with it in the coming months on its objectives.


I thank Maurice Corry for securing this opportunity to highlight the excellent work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I also welcome members’ contributions to the debate, because it is entirely fitting that the Scottish Parliament marks the efforts of the commission. Its role as the custodian of the final resting places of the 1.7 million men and women, military and civilian, from across the Commonwealth who died during, or as a result of, the first and second world wars should not be overlooked. Scotland saw the death of around 150,000 and 50,000 of its young men and women in the first and second world wars, respectively. Their graves are scattered across the globe, as we have heard, tended by the staff of the CWGC. Some, I might add, are in places still touched by the horrors of modern conflicts.

Of the 1.7 million individuals whom I noted, just over 21,000 are buried here in Scotland across 1,300 cemeteries and, as we have heard, many of them came from other corners of the Commonwealth. In my county of Angus, the commission maintains 400 graves in 33 different sites, honouring young men largely from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force who gave their lives during conflict. That illustrates, as does what members have said, that barely a household in Scotland was left untouched to some degree by the horrors of those wars and that the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reaches into each and every one of our communities.

The commission’s founding principles seek to ensure that all those who made the ultimate sacrifice are honoured equally, regardless of rank, religion or race and regardless, as Edward Mountain indicated, of where they were laid to rest. The commission’s efforts in maintaining and caring for the tranquil surroundings of their many cemeteries and memorials mean that descendants can still, despite the many years that have passed, pay their respect to loved ones lost during conflicts. That is something that I, as minister for veterans, am very grateful for. I would be pleased to join Annabelle Ewing on one of the visits that she has pledged to undertake in her constituency.

The other point that I wish to make is the extent to which the commission really does represent the Commonwealth and the strong bonds that exist between Scotland and fellow Commonwealth members. Its membership includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India, countries to which Scotland retains firm ties. During ANZAC day last year, my ministerial colleague Ben Macpherson spoke at a service to remember two young New Zealand pilots whose plane crashed during the second world war while training not far from Edinburgh. Further, I was honoured last October to be invited to speak at a commemoration service in Kingussie, to which Anas Sarwar referred, that honoured the men of Force K6 of the British Indian Army, several of whom are buried there. At the outbreak of the second world war, those young men found themselves leaving their homeland to travel first to France, before coming to the Highlands following their evacuation from Dunkirk.

The young man at whose grave in Kingussie I laid a wreath was just 18 when he left India. One can only imagine the impact that those experiences must have had on him. Headstones now mark the final resting place of 13 members of Force K6 across the north of Scotland. Despite those sad circumstances in which the bonds between Scotland and India were formed, it is welcome to see that the links between our two countries still endure. For example, the Scottish Government has provided support to establish the Social Enterprise Academy in India to provide support for Indian social enterprises; and 16 of our 19 higher education institutions have research links with India, including in areas of national importance to India such as smart cities, health and water treatment.

I hope that those links will continue to grow and strengthen as the years go by, because I was touched by the turnout at Kingussie. There were so many different denominations of Indian heritage, all there, as I was, to honour the sacrifice that was made by soldiers from the subcontinent. In so doing, they provided a sharp reminder to those who seek to sow the seeds of division of the inclusive and multicultural Scotland that we are and must continue to be. I could not agree more with Anas Sarwar on that, and I share his desire for the realisation in the not-too-distant future of Colourful Heritage’s wonderful campaign to create a lasting memorial to the sacrifices of the Indian Army. In order to learn more about the organisation’s work, I have committed to meeting representatives of Colourful Heritage in Glasgow.

War grave settings can be sad places, but they also serve a purpose beyond merely providing a fitting resting place and somewhere for families to connect with members who were lost in long past conflicts. Edward Mountain talked about visiting the cemeteries of El Alamein and, many years ago, in a different life, I visited the cemeteries at Arnhem in Holland. It was an extremely moving experience, one that left a lasting impression in terms of the horrific price that is paid in war and the need to prioritise avoiding such conflicts—a lesson that, as Bruce Crawford suggested, we should be mindful of today, more than ever.

I again thank Maurice Corry for bringing the debate to the chamber and allowing us to mark the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and I thank members for their contributions.

13:20 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—