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.”