Commonwealth War Graves

Of the many wars fought during the 20th century, the First World War (which lasted from 1914–1918) and the Second World War (which lasted from 1939–1945) consumed energies and resources on a global scale. They were, indeed world wars. South Africans served with honour and distinction in the military, navy, and air force in both wars – as many as 13 South Africans were recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in action.

Unfortunately, as is the case with war, a huge number of South Africans gave their lives in defence of Britain – and the British Commonwealth – against the aggression of Germany. The total number of known deaths in both world wars – and as a result of disease, malnutrition and the like – ran into tens of millions, with thousands of South African lives included.

The Commonwealth War Graves Act 1992 is designed to ensure respect and honour for the resting places of those who gave their lives so that others may live and enjoy freedom.

A ‘Commonwealth War Grave’ is any grave, tombstone, monument or memorial connected with a ‘Commonwealth War Burial’, which is in turn defined to mean a burial of any member of the naval, military or air forces of the Commonwealth who died as a result of injuries sustained or diseases contracted during active duty during either of the World Wars.

A. Graves

  1. It is a crime to desecrate (which means to treat with violent disrespect) or destroy, or even damage, a Commonwealth war grave.1

  2. It is an offence for any owner of land on which a Commonwealth war grave is situated (including Municipalities), to remove or alter the grave without following due process involving the Commission on Commonwealth War Graves.2

  3. If the Commission has dug or erected a grave, anyone who removes or alters it commits a crime unless the Commission has in writing agreed.3

  4. The Commission can enter into agreements with the owners of the land on which there exists one or more Commonwealth war graves to repair and maintain the graves, and even to construct fences, access roads, gates, and walls. If anyone destroys or even damages any fence, wall or gate constructed by the Commission, he commits a criminal offence.4

B. Burials

  1. It is an offence for any owner of land on which a Commonwealth war grave is situated (including Municipalities), to disinter (i.e. dig up), remove, re-bury or cremate a Commonwealth war burial.5
  1. Section 2 read with section 6(1)a. 

  2. Section 3(1)b read with section 6(1)a. 

  3. Section 3(4) read with section 6(1)a. 

  4. Section 6(1)b. 

  5. Section 3(1)a read with section 6(1) a.