We will remember them: war graves’ history is rewritten

Normandy Voices: In Arras, a landmark initiative has been started to ensure no victim of the two world wars is forgotten

Share

Old soldiers never die, but their tombstones fade away. George Alfred Booth from Kentish Town has been buried in northern France since he died in a German attack on Vimy Ridge, near Arras, on 20 March 1916.  For nine decades his Portland limestone grave-marker, erected in the early 1920s, has been battered by rain and wind in a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery not far from the A26 motorway from Calais to Paris.

A few days ago, the inscription – L. Corp. G.A. Booth 19th Battalion County of London – could be read only with difficulty. No longer. On a bright afternoon after a day of showers, George’s stone is being carefully restored by Christophe Accart, 45, a stone engraver employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  With great care, he is picking out every swirl of the County of London regimental badge, checking the picture in a file of old British military insignias which lies open on the turf by his side.

Another 7,649 gravestones stand in gleaming white ranks at the Cabaret Rouge cemetery, one of the largest British cemeteries of the First World War. Almost all of them will be re-carved in the next three months. Another 535, too worn or damaged to repair, will be replaced. Next year are two significant anniversaries - 70 years since the D-Day invasion in June and the centenary of the beginning of World War One in August - and an unprecedented campaign is under way to renew gravestones in the 900 British and Commonwealth war cemeteries in France beforehand. All 500,000 gravestones in France have been checked. Whole cemeteries – mostly from the Second World War - are to have their badly worn stones replaced.

As many as 12,000 stones in France and Belgium will be uprooted and changed in the next year. Up to 50,000 will be replaced over the next four years. Tens of thousands of others are being recarved, like George Booth’s stone in Cabaret Rouge – all within the Commonwealth War Graves Commission annual budget of £60m.

Why?  Is dulling by time and weather not inevitable? Even desirable?

Laurence Binyon’s “Ode of Remembrance” speaks of the victims of the industrial slaughter of the Great War as being forever young. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) takes the view that age should not “weary” the war cemeteries either. “It is the first of our founding principles, to maintain their memory and their name in perpetuity,” says Alan Jarvis, Director of Works for the Commission. “We are the only organisation that I know of whose stated aim is ‘perpetuity’.”

The CWGC, which looks after graves from the two world wars in 153 countries, has always renewed stones when necessary. This explains why the Commonwealth cemeteries always appear poignantly fresh. The effect is reinforced by startlingly beautiful lawns and flowerbeds in the style of British country gardens.

Barry Murphy, the CWGC director for France, says:   “The idea that these names should be remembered forever is at the heart of what we do. Allowing the inscriptions on the stones to fade is not an option for us.”

“Some of the original stones from the 1920s are fine. Others, depending on their position or the exposure of the cemetery, have worn badly.  Strangely, the stones erected in the 1950s especially in Normandy, have aged more rapidly than the World War One stones.”

The original gravestones came from the Portland limestone quarries in Dorset.  The poor quality of the stones erected in the 1950s may be explained by the fact that best stone was reserved for the rebuilding of Blitz-damaged London.

Portland can no longer supply the CWGC’s requirements. The replacements are made from similar limestone which comes from Vratza in Bulgaria and Bottecino in Italy.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s main workshops are at Beaurains, close to Arras, in northern France.  From here grave-stones are shipped all over the world. Until a couple of years ago, the CWGG had two machines for carving gravestones. The Commission will soon have five, including state-of-the-art, computer-guided machines which replicate the style and wording of the inscriptions once chiselled by hand. 

“Extraordinary planning went into the original cemeteries,” said Michael Diaz, the CWGC works manager at Beaurains. “The inscriptions were carved at a 45-degree angle, so that anyone walking along the rows of graves could read and identify the name as they approached. We reproduce that exactly.”

The laser-guided bit of one of the CWGC’s new machines is carving a new memorial to a soldier killed 97 years ago. The machine rapidly writes in the stone the letters: “L.Cpl E. Gooch. Wiltshire Regiment. Died 21 Oct 1916. Age 22.” Edward Gooch came from Balham in south London. He is among the 10,000 soldiers buried in the cemetery at Etaples on the Channel Coast, close to the rear bases for the British army in 1914-8. 

In the Cabaret Rouge cemetery, Christopher Accor has nearly finished the restoration work on George Booth’s gravestone. “It is rewarding work,” he said. “I was once working on a gravestone when relatives of the soldier arrived, quite by coincidence. They were overjoyed that such trouble was being taken to preserve his name.”

Not far away two muscular, young French employees of the CWGC are lifting a replacement stone into position. The inscription reads: “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God”. Even “unknown soldiers” are remembered “in perpetuity”.

A school party arrives from the Inverclyde Academy, Gourock, near Glasgow. They are dressed in red “poppy” jackets marked “Inverclyde Pals 13”.

Kiera Purdie, aged 16, places a small cross on the grave of William James Speers who was killed on 16 May 1915, aged 30. He is, she explains, her “step great-great grandfather.” William Speers married her great-great grandfather’s widow in 1913. Two years later the widow and her three children were bereaved again.

Kiera is delighted to find that her distant relative’s gravestone has been freshly carved. “It’s the first time I’ve come and I expected to find it all dark and dirty,” she said.

The school’s tour guide, Margaret Hubbard from Edinburgh, gives a brief talk to the 30 teenagers, about memory and why the 1914-18 war is – or should be – still fresh in our minds. “He was from Gourock too. He saw the same hills of home that you see,” she tells the teenagers. “These are not old men. They are young men. History is under your feet.”

The group moves away in single file, their red jackets passing between the white graves. The Scottish teenagers walk to the sound of a hymn used in the First World War play “Warhorse”. “Only remembered, only remembered for what we have done.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game