Desecration of the fallen heroes

The French are angered and puzzled by attacks on First World War cemeteries, writes Steve Boggan in Arras
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It was an obvious metaphor but an inevitable one. Rows of white headstones lay broken, fallen like the men they commemorated.

"A soldier of the Great War - Known unto God," said the inscription on many. Others, those that fell face up, bore names: 77171 B Gallacher, Royal Field Artillery, 6 May 1917; 39127 Private C W Cummings, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 23 August 1918, age 26.

In all, 163 headstones had been kicked over in two British war cemeteries in northern France.

"Whoever did this needs help," said Trilocham Prem, 57, the man with responsibility for about half the 800 war cemeteries running along the eastern sector of what used to be the Western Front. "I was told about the damage on Monday morning and I came running in here," he said. "What I saw has left me totally demoralised. It is a disgusting crime."

Mr Prem, of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was surveying the devastation in Aval Wood Military Cemetery in Vieux-Berquin on the edge of the Nieppe Forest.

Sometime during last weekend, someone kicked over 112 out of 414 gravestones. Over the same two days, but not to be discovered until Tuesday, another British military graveyard 20 miles away, Bunyans Cemetery in Tilloy- les-Mofflaines, south east of Arras, was also desecrated. There, surrounded by fields of wheat and sugar beet, an intruder kicked over 51 of 54 headstones, breaking at least half of them in two.

A large, muddy boot-print can be seen on most of them - even the three that withstood the pounding.

Yesterday, an eerie silence over Bunyans Cemetery was broken only by the sound of skylarks. It is a tidy, clipped graveyard less than 25 yards by 25, surrounded by a wall. At one end are two Irish yew trees and a tall cross of sacrifice; at the other, two silver birches. In between is the obscene sight of four rows of flattened Portland limestone headstones crushing the rose bushes and lavender shrubs planted in front of them.

"There have been small acts of vandalism before, but never anything on this scale," said Bill MacPherson, the man responsible for the 400 war cemeteries in the western sector. "I felt angry and disgusted when I saw what had happened ... There is a feeling of great disappointment here. My neighbours in Beaumetz-les-Loges have been knocking on my door to offer apologies. The French are very upset about it."

The war graves commission tends 473,101 graves in northern France on a pounds 10m budget and enjoys the support and respect of the vast majority of French people.

One who drove along the lonely dirt road that leads to Bunyans Cemetery to pay his respects was Robert Retroite, a local rail worker. "I wish I could get my hands on the bastard who did this," he said. "I can't understand it. But now there is vandalism everywhere. There are too many 16- to 18- year-olds with no work and nothing to do."

The region does have a high level of unemployment - between 15 and 20 per cent, the legacy of the collapse of coal mining - but that does not explain why two such determined, energetic and powerful attacks should be aimed at soldiers who died during German offensives in 1917 and 1918.

Mike Johnson, director of the war graves commission, said 12 much smaller incidents have happened in the past six years. "Nine of those have been at this time of year, just as the school holidays have started," he said. "It would appear to be a case of mindless vandalism carried out by youths."

Not everyone agrees. While the consensus of opinion among local people seems to rule out a political motive,some believe the two attacks may be linked. There was no youthful debris - beer cans, cigarette ends - at either site, and the frenzy of the attacks was fearsome.

The French were anxious to make amends yesterday. Pierre Pasquini, the minister for veterans' affairs, paid a visit to Aval Wood to lay a wreath.

It was a gesture that was appreciated warmly by Mr Prem, who had been deeply moved by what had happened. "These aren't the feelings people are supposed to take home with them when they visit a place like this," he said.

"At Kohima Commonwealth War Cemetery in north-east India is a plaque which carries a fairly common inscription that I always remember. It just says: 'When you go home, tell them of us and say, We gave our today for their tomorrow'."