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A little piece of England: The horticultural surprises in a French war cemetery

To reach Knightsbridge, you drive for two kilometres down farm tracks. Then you walk for 100 metres along a strip of lawn through a field of wheat. Usually, the grass path looks as if it was sliced from the outfield at Lords. In this year of drought, the turf is dry and ragged. At the end of the English path, you find an English garden – an English garden surrounded by a French field. Within the flower borders are neat rows of bone-white gravestones. This is a garden but also a burial ground. A little way to the east, across the ocean of grain, is the remnant of the British front line of the summer and autumn of 1916.

Knightsbridge is part of an archipelago of 3,000 British 'gardens', some tiny, some extensive, scattered through northern France and Normandy. Many are, literally, corners of foreign fields. You can also come across them beside motorways or within suburban housing estates or near derelict coal mines or next to modern factories. You can sometimes spot them in the distance as you race across northern France in the Eurostar.

The greatest single concentration of the 'cemetery-gardens' is in the north-eastern extremity of the département of the Somme. Here alone, 250 fragments of Britain are sprinkled over the gentle hills, and the mournful plateau, which saw the single most murderous battle of the First World War, starting 95 years ago yesterday (1 July, 1916).

The full title of Knightsbridge is the Knightsbridge British War cemetery, named after one of the communication trenches which led many thousands of young men to their deaths in July to November, 1916.

The French and German cemeteries of the 1914-18 war tend to be large and austere. The British and Commonwealth cemeteries are often small and intimate. In the 1920s, the Imperial War Graves Commission – now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) – concentrated many battlefield burial grounds into larger plots. Hundreds of others, such as Knightsbridge, were preserved where the soldiers were killed and buried in the heat of battle. All the British cemeteries were rebuilt to resemble English country gardens.

The basic pattern – with flower borders 45cm to 60cm wide containing uniform Portland stone grave markers – was established by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens with the help of the celebrated garden designer, writer and artist Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932).

Some British people at the time protested against what they saw as the prettification of the war. What had cottage gardens to do with the industrial-scale slaughter of the Somme or Ypres? With the passage of years, the Lutyens-Jekyll vision has been vindicated. Even in a year of drought, the Commonwealth garden cemeteries are fresh and alive. When you enter a place like Knightsbridge, the memory of the young men mown down here almost a century ago is still vivid.

Commonwealth war cemeteries can be found in more than 40 countries on three continents. The 'English', or British, cottage garden style laid down by Jekyll, is continued wherever possible but desert locations, such as El Alamein in Egypt, have to be treated differently.

The CWGC is therefore one of the largest, and most varied, horticultural organisations in the world. More than half of its staff are gardeners. In France alone, 320 CWGC gardeners in 37 mobile teams look after almost 100 miles of flower borders in over 3,000 cemeteries.

Paul Bird, horticultural supervisor for the CWGC in a large section of the Somme battlefields, explained the almost unchanging design. There are three herbaceous plants for every gravestone, forming patterns of 12 to 20 plants which repeat every five graves. Each border is re-made every five years. Floribunda roses are planted every couple of gravestones, usually in rows of the same colour.

Varieties include the blood-red 'Remembrance', which was bred especially for the CWGC. "We want varieties which will fill the beds and provide a succession of colour without being so vigorous that they obscure the inscriptions on the stones," Mr Bird said. "The idea is that each cemetery should be a little bit of Britain, but also a little bit of the garden of Eden."

When the cemeteries were created, ex-British soldiers were employed to look after them. They often married local women. Their sons sometimes joined them in their work. Over 80 per cent of CWGC gardeners in France are now locally hired, but some family dynasties remain.

David Moody, a war cemetery garden supervisor, is from one such dynasty. In his career for the CWGC, he's worked in more than 40 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. "It is not a job, it is a passion," Moody said. "Whenever I enter a cemetery... I always think of the boys buried in there. Some of them may be German or French, not British. No matter. I just want to give something back to people who gave their country everything."

As we were leaving the Citadel cemetery near Fricourt, two British visitors spotted the CWGC insignia on our vehicles and applauded. David Hood and Peter Clyne, both 57 and from north-east Scotland, were on a week's tour of the battlefields. "It is impossible to exaggerate how wonderfully these places are kept," Mr Hood said. "Whenever you arrive, however obscure or small the cemetery, it is always as if the gardeners have just left."