Shielding Commonwealth war graves from the ravages of time

By Christian Fraser
BBC News


It's remarkable walking the cemeteries of the old Western Front to see how pristine and loved they still look.

A foreign field that is forever England, tended like a cottage garden.

Of course the years of wind, rain and sun inevitably take their toll on the headstones.

The name of Pte Atkins for instance, of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, is looking just a little worn.

But his memory will never be allowed to fade.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission serves no other purpose but to preserve the honour of every soldier that fell - even those that were never identified.

And there are time-honoured traditions on how each of these headstones must look.


"Our legibility standards are exacting," says Barry Murphy, director of the commission's France operations.

"We aim that they are legible from a range of 2m [6ft 6in], which is usually where people will stand back to look.

"And as you walk along the line, they must also be readable from 45 degrees, so that people can see the names as they approach."

Cabaret Rouge is one of the many cemeteries close to the town of Arras.

The name derives from a front-line cafe that was destroyed here during the early stages of the war.

The cemetery was begun by Commonwealth troops in March 1916.

It was greatly enlarged after the 11 November 1918 armistice brought World War I to an end, when thousands of bodies from the battlefields of Arras were brought in.

It contains the graves of British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and South African soldiers and airmen, and is the final resting place of hundreds of Canadians, killed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

Today, the lines of white Portland stone stretch as far as the eye can see.

But if you visit, it's likely you will see among them a number of tiny green huts. And there, in front of them, perched in impossible positions, are the craftsmen who are restoring the headstones.

While they work, the air is filled with the whine of the engraver's drill.

Ahead of next year's centenary, each headstone across the Western Front is being checked, cleaned, where necessary re-engraved, or, if beyond repair, replaced altogether.

Among the commission's team is Frenchman Johann Riquoir. As he worked, his stare was fixed on one of the six tablets he restores each day.

"The soldiers left their families and came to fight here in France without receiving anything in return," he said.

"This is my way of paying homage to that sacrifice - and I put the same quality of work into a headstone for an unknown soldier as I do for those who are named."

The commission has surveyed in the past year every gravestone and memorial it manages, not just on the Western Front but in 153 countries. The planning is meticulous.

And given that 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces died in the two world wars, you will appreciate the enormous scale of their project.

Last year the commission's workshop in Beaurains near Arras produced 3,500 new headstones for 153 countries. This year they will work around the clock, engraving up to 25,000.

'Known unto God'

The tablets were once carved by a hand-guided machine, known as a pantograph. Now they're done by computers.

The machines, guided by digital images, etch an exact copy of the original headstone - with regimental shield, name, inscription - into the new stone.

Some 80% of the new headstones will go to France and Belgium, some to Normandy, where the sea-air has damaged a good many of the World War II graves, and some will be sent in diplomatic bags to distant cemeteries or to hostile places such as Somalia.

Barry Murphy, from the commission, says it is also updating German stones for the shared cemetery in Mons, where the first shots of the war were fired. It's where world leaders will meet next August for the first commemorations.

"We have a number in the workshop at the moment for St Symphorien, in Mons," he said.

"It's a significant cemetery because it contains burials from the first few days of the war, as well as burials from the end of the war.

"It was a very circular battle. They ended up where they started.

"For us it's one of a number of sites we are trying to ensure will look as good as possible before the start of the commemorations next year."

By 1917 the then "Imperial" War Graves Commission, established the importance of "eternal brotherhood" among the dead.

For the first time, everyone that was killed would have an identical grave, irrespective of rank.

All the soldiers that fell would be remembered whether or not they were found or identified - many of the re-engravings that are being done are for unidentified graves, a "Soldier of the Great War - Known Unto God".

It was a colossal undertaking burying the dead of the Great War - it was only completed in 1938. Just in time for the start of World War II.

'Another dimension'

Today, almost a 100 years on, the visitor numbers are increasing. Advances in genealogy bring people to the grave of a distant relatives they didn't previously know existed.

And what might have seemed distant and remote - suddenly becomes tangible and immediate.

Kiera Purdie, 16, from Greenock, Renfrewshire, was on a battlefield tour the day we visited.

She had come with her classmates to see for the first time, the grave of her great-grandmother's husband, Pte Speers, of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was killed on 16 May 1915, aged 31.

"I am glad I came," she said. "It was a very moving moment for me. I had expected the stones to look darker. Not as well kept. It is well worth coming here."

The gravestone looked as it would have looked 90 years ago. Their tour guide, Margaret Hubbard, regularly brings these school trips to France, only when they stand in front of it, she says, facing the tragedy of war, do they really understand it.

"The care they have taken with the graves is something that has gone on for generations, and it will continue for generations to come," she said.

"For me it adds another dimension to the teenage culture, it's not something they are normally exposed to.

"But when they come here, when they stand amidst this and they understand what happened here, it matters."

A signature feature of the bigger Commonwealth cemeteries, is the rectangular stone of remembrance. The inscription was chosen by Rudyard Kipling - an early member of the war graves commission, he was also a father who grieved, for his own son, John, who went missing in the Battle of Loos.

"Their name liveth for evermore," was the inscription chosen.

Words that speak to the new generation - just as they did to the last.

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