War Graves Passes (Laissez-Passer) 1921 – 1961 and Subsidies for War Cemetery Visits 1920-1922

War Graves Passes were issued from 1921 (see The National Archives (TNA) HO 45/11080/419854 WAR: War grave passes for relatives of late members of H.M. Forces buried in France and Belgium) and meant to be helpful to Britons who could not afford a passport just to visit the grave of their relative. Their issue was suspended from March 1940 until their reintroduction in 1948. From 1961, the British Visitor’s Passport replaced War Graves Passes, except for Israel where British Visitor’s Passports were not accepted, an interesting exception as Interwar Passes could only be used to visit War Graves in France and Belgium (see The National Archives (TNA) FO 612/306) Passport Office: War Graves Passes. Minute by P.L. Rex (25 September 1963)).

The version of the War Grave Pass printed in January 1939 includes the statement that it was (the following extracts come from The National Archives (TNA) FO 737/13/1: Louisa-Janet Cheesman, Sister of Private Charles H. Henman (3/6846, 1st Battalion, Devonshire Regiment) [Editor’s note: Exemplar file] War Grave Passes (War of 1914-1918)):

‘…For the purpose of visiting the grave of a member of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces in the late war area. This pass is granted to enable a relative to visit the grave of a late member of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces in France or Belgium without the necessity of obtaining a passport or visas for the journey. This pass is valid for a single journey to the destination named hereon and for return to the United Kingdom by the most direct route, and must be surrendered to the Immigration Officer on return to the United Kingdom, or returned to The Passport Office, London, S.W.1…’

A relative was defined (again according to the 1939 version of the application form) as follows:

‘…2. A War Graves Pass, taking the place of a passport, will be issued free of charge only to the following near relatives…: Mother, Father, Widow, Betrothed, wife if still unmarried, Daughter, Son, Sister, Brother, Step parents, Foster parents, Step children, Foster children, Grand parents, Step sister, Step brother, Adopted sister, or Adopted brother … (Ibid).’

Louisa’s photograph for the Pass and confirmation that she met these criteria for obtaining a War Graves Pass were certified by a policeman from Southwark Police Station in the part of the form set aside for this purpose, called ‘Certificate A’.

The form had to be signed and grave details completed by the I.W.G.C., in the section called Certificate B (later C.W.G.C.) before it was forwarded to the Passport Office: ‘… [Editor’s note: once the ‘Certificate A’ section had been completed]:

‘…The application should then be forwarded to the Imperial War Graves Commission, Enquiry Department, 32, Grosvenor Gardens, London, S.W.1. for the purpose of the completion of Certificate B… (Ibid)’.

The following is a transcription of Certificate B from Louisa-Janet-Cheesman’s completed form:

War Graves Passes – Laissez Passer copy Private 6846 Charles Henman’s 1st Devonshire Regiment C.W.G.C. record can be found here. According to his Medal Card he died from gas poisoning. Louisa and her husband were living in the old Henman family house with Henman’s mother (Amelia Henman) in 1939. Both his mother and the family house are mentioned in his entry in the C.W.G.C. Register.


War Graves Passes were originally issued by the Military Permit Office. The M.P.O. was part of the War Office until 1922, when the War Office announced its abolition and attempted without success to pass the M.P.O.’s work connected with the issue of War Grave Passes to the Imperial War Graves Commission (to add to the work of the I.W.G.C. verifying the location and purpose of the visit). The I.W.G.C. successfully pleaded that their charter forbade them from doing anything to help ‘…relatives who wish to visit the Cemeteries abroad, except in the matter of communicating the location of graves… (see The National Archives (TNA) T 161/223 Treasury Imperial War Graves Commission: Powers to provide transport and passes for visits of relations to War Graves. Lord Arthur Browne IWGC to The Secretary War Office (24 March 1922)). The War Office letter which mentions the proposed transfer of work from the War Office to I.W.G.C. can be found in the same file Ibid H.J. Creedy War Office to The Secretary I.W.G.C. (23 March 1922)).’

A copy of a letter from the new Military Permit Section of the Passport Office (part of the Foreign Office), which took over the work of the now defunct War Office section can be found here:


In 1930, the Passport Office abolished the Military Permit Section and brought its work, including on War Graves Passes, into the general Passport Office (continuing to work with the I.W.G.C.) (The National Archives (TNA) FO 612/306 War Graves Passes: War Graves Passes. Second minute dated 20 May 1930).

We get some idea of the level of demand for War Graves Passes at a time when most British men and women lacked passports, with for example a new 1930 print run of only 1,500 Passes, with 2,000 application forms (Ibid. First Minute dated 20 May 1930), representing a small proportion of the millions of Britons who had lost a relative in WW1 and met the criteria for this document). The writer of the minute also states that there was an average demand for ‘600-700’ (Ibid) Passes per year. This seems a rather small number, even taking into account those who had full passports and on the other side the lack of means of many relatives who would otherwise have visited the war graves of their loved ones. Although the War Grave Passes were printed in only fairly small numbers in 1930 there were presumably a number of print runs during the 1920s and 1930s. Even assuming that that some of those visiting the Great War cemeteries and memorials of France and Belgium had full Passports, the figure of 600 to 700 per year issued seems rather low and does not reflect the demand for presumably thousands of War Graves Passes at the time of the opening of Memorials to the Missing or the big battlefield pilgrimages.

For example the Honorary Secretary of the Ypres League Captain Jack Wilkinson in a letter to a local Sheffield Newspaper (the same letter was likely to have been sent to many local newspapers throughout the country) about the Ypres League decision to run two trips to Ypres in July 1927 (one trip timed to coincide with the official unveiling ceremony, the other a week after) stated that ‘War graves pass or passports are necessary (see ‘Letters to the Editor: Menin Gate War Memorial to the Missing’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph 25 June 1927 ).

British Government Subsidies for Visits to The War Graves 1920-1922

One of the reasons for the relative difficulty in visiting the war graves for many ordinary people was cost. It was suggested by the Prime Minister (Lloyd George) and Secretary of State for War (Winston Churchill) in 1920 that some money was put aside to reduce the cost of travelling to the war graves through approved organisations such as the Y.M.C.A. or Church Army.  It was proposed that the Government would achieve this by subsidising part of the cost of the rail-fares (a June 1920 Cabinet paper said that rail-fares accounted for around two-thirds of the cost of visits to war graves in France and Belgium) and reducing the cost of passports (see The National Archives (TNA) T 161/23/6 Departmental Functions: Imperial War Graves Commission: Powers to provide transport and passes for visits of relations to War Graves: Travelling Concessions For Relatives Visiting Graves of The Fallen In France And Belgium, C.P. 1 383 (1 June 1920)).

On 11 June 1920, it had been agreed by the Cabinet to proceed in principle (Ibid. Memo 11 June 1920) with the scheme to produce War Grave Passports and provide some subsidy for visits from relatives to the War Graves to the organisations named above plus the Salvation Army. According to a 1924 letter from the I.W.G.C. to the Treasury (C.W.G.C. Archive Add 1/3/8 Part 1 Box 2042 FX: C and FA Correspondence Part 1. Lord Arthur Browne Principal Assistant Secretary I.W.G.C. to Viscount Cross Treasury (17 March 1924)) for a short period (presumably from either 1920 or 1921?) subsidies were channelled to these organisations, with the ‘grants’ ending at the end of 1922. The money had come as originally suggested in the Cabinet discussions of 1920 from the budgets of the service departments: The Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry. According to a statement made by the Under Secretary for War in the Commons the scheme’s termination was due to the need to need to make further cuts in Government spending (Ibid). Probably some of the Government funds (along with charitable donations) had gone toward the following scheme run by the Y.M.C.A., which was mentioned in a Nottingham newspaper in November 1921:

‘…Altogether 120 relatives of soldiers buried in France and Belgium have now been sent out by the Y.M.C.A. from Nottingham under the Graves Visitation Scheme, the expenses in each case being either partially or wholly borne out of a special fund set aside for the purpose. In one instance, recently, a poor widowed woman, who had been out to visit the grave of her only son, tearfully pressed for the acceptance of a gold half-sovereign, which, she explained, was “his” last gift before he joined up. Another woman presented herself at Triangle House with six sovereigns. Her boy, she said, had been killed in the early days of the war, and soon after the sad news came through she and his father determined to save up so that after the war they might visit the place where he fell. After they had saved £6 her husband died, and in spite of many hardships and privations she had kept the little hoard intact for the purpose for which it was designed.’

From the Nottingham Journal and Express 14 Nov 1921, press cutting in C.W.G.C. Archive WG 1294/3/2 Box 1084 Exhumation. France & Belgium. Army Exhumation Staff.

Even during the period when grants were made to Y.M.C.A., Salvation Army and Church Army, it was made clear to those seeking to go abroad in the newspaper reports announcing the War Graves Passes as being completely free to eligible relatives that ‘In all cases the cost of the cost of the journey is to be borne by the applicant (Western Morning News ‘Conditional Passes For Near Relatives (19 September 1921),’ a quote taken directly from the War Grave Passes application form (see below). The charitable organisations were presumably able to decide whether ‘…the expenses…[were]…either partially or wholly borne out… [presumably depending on the financial situation of the applicant, adapted from full quote from Nottingham Journal and Express, see above].’

After 1922

From 1922 help from the Government towards the cost of visiting the War Graves in France and Belgium was confined to the issuing of War Graves Passes (including confirmation of the location of the grave by the I.W.G.C.) and advice in the form of recommending commercial or charitable organisations to help organise visits:

‘…1. The cost of the journey to be borne by the applicant, but enquiries regarding the travelling expenses, routes, distances, &c., in connection with visits to War Graves should not be made at the Passport Office, but should be addressed to the usual Continental Travel Agencies or to one of the following societies: –

Y.M.C.A., 112, Great Russell Street, W.C.1.
Church Army, 55, Bryanston Street, Marble Arch.
Salvation Army, 101, Queen Victoria Street, E.C…’

From The National Archives (TNA) FO 737/13/1: Louisa-Janet Cheesman, Sister of Private Charles H. Henman (3/6846, 1st Battalion, Devonshire Regiment) [Editor’s note: Exemplar file] War Grave Passes (War of 1914-1918)

The Imperial War Graves Commission

As seen above, the I.W.G.C. did not want to and could not by virtue of its charter get involved in arranging transport and tours of the cemeteries (although occasionally I.W.G.C. officials might accompany politicians and influential persons on visits to the Cemeteries).

The Commission also did not possess any funds to help relatives visit the cemeteries and memorials in its care, for example a widow trying to raise the funds to get to France in time for the dedication of the Thiepval Memorial in May 1932 was simply told that the Commission had no funds to help fund transport or other expenses (see C.W.G.C. Enquiry file YP 2/860 2221 Lance Corporal A.M. Birbeck 1/8th Durham Light Infantry. Letter from the I.W.G.C. to Mrs Birbeck (20 April 1932)).

However, the I.W.G.C. did pass on advice on travel organisations (often one or all of those listed above. e.g. The Church Army, together with others such as the St Barnabas Society and the Ypres League) to relatives who enquired about visiting their relatives’ grave, including in some of its letters references to commercial tour operators such as Thomas Cook (for example see letter from the CWGC Archive Enquiry file YP/1059 Private 46914 G. Warburton Manchester Regiment. I.W.G.C. to Albert B. Warburton (4 April 1933)).

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