French shamed by attack on war graves

Vandalism mystery: Apologies as headstones damaged at three military cemeteries
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The Independent Online
There was shame and embarrassment among the people of northern France yesterday when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission revealed that three British war cemeteries had been desecrated by vandals in the space of 48 hours.

War graves officials in France received a steady stream of calls from apologetic French people after police reported that 112 headstones at Aval Wood military cemetery, near Lille, had been knocked over on Sunday night. Then came the news that 51 out of 54 headstones had been broken at Bunyans cemetery, near Arras, and a further three had been damaged at the nearby Orange Hill cemetery the following evening.

Officially, police and war graves commission staff said there was no connection between the attacks - such incidents happen periodically - but concern has reached the highest levels of the French government. Pierre Pasquini, the minister whose department is responsible for upkeep of the cemeteries, is due to visit Aval Wood today. During the attack there, the cemetery's book of remembrance was burnt.

"The three cemeteries are about an hour's drive apart," said Jeremy Gee, director of information for the War Graves Commission. "There is no evidence to suggest that the attacks are in any way linked, but obviously we hope it isn't a group of people driving from cemetery to cemetery doing damage.

"There is a possibility that the second and third attacks were copycat incidents, but that isn't much consolation. There may be more when the attacks are reported in the media."

Mr Gee said British and French staff who maintain the graves had been deeply upset by the incident. They had to deal with a steady stream of inquiries from anxious relatives concerned that the headstone of a family member might have been destroyed. Nearly all the men buried at the three sites died during the First World War.

"We don't have lists yet, but when we do we will call the people involved," he said. "Most of the headstones are unbroken and can be easily replaced. The rest will be repaired and put back in place. We have also had a lot of calls from sympathetic French people who feel ashamed at what has happened. We have been thanking them for calling, but it isn't their fault. We have plenty of vandals of our own here in England."