Establishing Gallipoli's Graves

19 January 2015 by Dianne Rutherford

The recent film, The Water Diviner has focused attention on the amazing work of the Graves Registration Unit (GRU) and Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC - now Commonwealth War Graves Commission) from late 1918 to the mid-1920s at Gallipoli.

The Beach Cemetery 1915.

During the early stages of the Gallipoli campaign, the recording of burials was haphazard but later, efforts were made to maintain and record cemeteries and discourage isolated burials. Chaplain Walter Dexter was appointed to lead a survey of the Anzac cemeteries. With a surveyor, Dexter mapped several cemeteries in the Anzac area and recorded the isolated graves in the gullies. He also supervised fatigue parties, who cleaned and fenced cemeteries where possible. In early December a permanent cemetery party was established to care for the cemeteries. This group finalised the tidying of the cemeteries before the evacuation soon after.

Dexter's map of Shrapnel Valley Cemetery, 1915

Concerned about the fate of the graves, General Alexander Godley wrote a letter for the commander of the Turks at Ari Burnu:


In withdrawing my troops from this portion of Ottoman Territory, I am glad to recall that the struggle in which for eight months past our two armies have been engaged, has been characterised on either hand by a scrupulous regard for the usages of civilized war. I am therefore, fully confident that the Graveyards of British soldiers buried in Turkish soil will be respected by your troops, but I should be grateful if your Excellency will take measures for their special preservation in the territory under your command. They have fallen far from home, fighting gallantly in their country's cause, and deserve that a gallant foe, such as we have found Turkish soldiers to be, should take special care of their last resting place.

Thanking you in advance, and assuring you of my highest consideration.

After the evacuation some efforts were made by the Turks to protect the cemeteries. Wire fences and notices against grave-robbing were erected. Despite these efforts, some grave robbing at Anzac occurred, but it was not systematic and tended to occur at the larger, better known cemeteries.

Dexter's map of the Beach Cemetery, 1915.

Concern from Australia and other nations led Pope Benedict XV to enquire after the state of the cemeteries in 1916. The Turkish War Office investigated and discovered that the cemeteries had vanished from the landscape. After the evacuation the crosses were used as firewood and flora regrew, hiding many of the graves from view. The Turks sent a team to rediscover and fix the cemeteries. Finding the actual graves proved difficult and time consuming, so instead they constructed fake burial mounds to resemble graves without any regard for the orientation of the graves underneath.

This “tidying up” only occurred at some of the major cemeteries. Most of the small or out-of-the-way cemeteries remained hidden under the scrub. Not familiar with how they originally looked, the Pope’s envoy inspected the tidied cemeteries and was satisfied with the care being undertaken. The cemeteries remained mostly undisturbed for the rest of the war.

Turkish 'burial' mounds constructed at The Beach cemetery in 1916 (Photograph taken in 1919).

In October 1918 the war with the Ottoman Empire ended and Lieutenant Cyril Hughes, a Gallipoli veteran, received orders to report to the Commanding Officer, Graves Registration Unit at Salonika. Hughes had been a civil engineer and surveyor before the war.

The GRU had to find, identify, record, and temporarily protect every British, Dominion and Indian war grave, chart the cemeteries and inter unburied remains. The responsibility for the cemeteries would later transfer to the IWGC, who would plan and establish the permanent cemeteries and memorials.

Hughes was in charge of the Australian section of the GRU and worked primarily in the Anzac area. Hughes was given chaplains’ burial reports, death card indexes and Dexter’s cemetery plans. He found the cemetery plans difficult to use for locating the graves as there were no fixed points of reference from which bearings might be taken. He also found extra burials that were not recorded on the plans, although these were later accounted for in burial reports.

Hughes and Woolley marking out graves at Brown's Dip in 1919.

Unfortunately the records rarely helped in identifying the remains. The burial reports usually only named the cemetery a soldier was buried in, not list the exact location of his grave and because the crosses had been destroyed from 1916, some previously identified remains were no longer identifiable. Despite this, the plans did prove helpful as guides to the cemeteries – particularly in locating the direction and vicinity of graves remodelled in 1916.

Due to the insufficient records Hughes and his team devised a simple, but time consuming, system for locating graves by inserting a metal rod into the ground. Where the ground easily gave way indicated disturbed earth and based on the shape of the boundaries it could be determined whether it was a grave or not.

After the original cemeteries and isolated graves were rediscovered, Hughes and his team made a thorough search over the areas where Australians fought, including Helles. More graves and many unburied remains were found. Some were even identified through ID discs or the names and numbers written on their equipment.

Brown's Dip Cemetery North and South 1919.

To assist in future work on the cemeteries, Acting Sergeant Arthur Woolley, a draughtsman and surveyor, surveyed the area from Chatham’s Post in the south to Hill 60 in the north, showing the exact location of all graves and cemeteries at Anzac.

In February 1919, CEW Bean, returned to Gallipoli try and answer what he called the "riddles of Anzac" for the official history he would write. He was also there reporting on the state of the cemeteries and the progress of the GRU's work for the Australian Government.

No decisions had been made concerning the final layout of the cemeteries; whether the graves would remain where they were or be consolidated into a few large cemeteries. As Anzac Cove was a relatively isolated area, not suitable for growing crops and there were few flat areas where the cemeteries could be consolidated, Hughes felt it would be possible to set aside the entire Anzac area as a great commemorative space. Also, on a practical level, .

Bean was excited by this idea and put forward Hughes’s suggestion in his report to the Australian Government. It was adopted by the government, but with modifications. All isolated graves and cemeteries at risk from erosion were to be transferred into nearby cemeteries. The Australian Government lobbied the British to include allocating the Anzac area to the IWGC in any treaties signed.

Small metal grave marker that was attached to the temporary IWGC cross on Private William Sullivan's grave after his remains were recovered in the early 1920s.



In 1920 Hughes joined the IWGC and proposed a list of 30 permanent cemeteries for the Anzac area.  This list was later amended to the current 21 cemeteries as the ground at Gallipoli was sandy and badly drained and the area prone to erosion and landslides.

The architect, Sir John Burnet, arrived in Gallipoli in mid-1919 with his assistants, Captains D. Raeburn and Gordon Keesing to design the permanent cemeteries.  He faced religious and environmental challenges his peers in Europe did not. In deference to Muslim sentiments Burnet designed a central stone monument in each cemetery, with a cross carved in relief, rather than large crosses against the skyline as used in Europe. He designed low-lying, recumbent headstones with sloping faces to better withstand the tough Gallipoli environment . He also decided that the unknown graves would not have headstones, but instead lay beneath a field of green grass.

The Beach Cemetery, 1936. Central stone monument with cross in relief.

In 1920 the IWGC took over control of the cemeteries and began working on basic infrastructure. Repairing or creating roads, building accommodation, reopening a local quarry and building a ropeway to carry supplies up to the ridges. By early 1921 the landscaping for the new cemeteries began, with trenches filled in and sites levelled at areas like Lone Pine and Quinn's Post. Rubble walls were built to protect the cemeteries from erosion and trenches dug around them to divert the rain water which threatened their stability.

Lone Pine Cemetery in 1923.

Under the Treaty of Sevrés, signed in 1920, the Ottoman Empire was divided up and the Dardanelles Peninsula was ceded to the Greeks. This included the Anzac area which was granted to the IWGC by the Greeks, on the proviso it did not employ the land for any commercial or military purposes. However, events soon threatened the work the IWGC were undertaking.

partially constructed 7th Field Ambulance Cemetery, 1923.

Resentment in Turkey grew over the treaty and many Turks mobilised under Mustafa Kemal, a military commander at Gallipoli during the campaign, who believed in "Turkey for the Turks". After fighting some of the occupying forces and making separate peace deals with the Italians and French, the threat of another war with Britain loomed. Thankfully is did not occur and a conference was held at Lausanne, Switzerland in November 1922 for a new treaty, which included the fate of the Gallipoli cemeteries.

After much debate the Anzac area was granted to the IWGC by the Turks in the treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This meant they could continue their work with confidence. By the time they finished, each identified man had a headstone. the unknown soldiers lay beneath the green grass and those known to be buried in the cemeteries, but whose remains could not be identified were commemorated with special memorial headstones stating “believed to be buried in this cemetery”. The names of those who had no known grave, or were buried at sea, were commemorated on memorials at Hill 60, Chunuk Bair, Lone Pine, and Cape Helles.