Why those corners of a foreign field are forever immaculate

  • 8 November, 2017
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Mail on 08 November 2017.

Acting Captain Arthur Henderson
Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse

Under a warm, late-afternoon sun, I gently placed my wreath at the base of Captain Arthur Henderson’s gravestone at the immaculately kept Cojeul British Cemetery in northern France.

As the proud custodian of Captain Henderson’s medal group, which I bought at auction for my collection of war medals, I had long wanted to pay my respects to this noble soldier. He showed such courage in battle south-east of Arras in France in 1917 — despite a badly wounded arm, he led a fierce attack on the enemy before being killed aged just 23 — that he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross (VC), Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award.

The cemetery, designed by the great architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, contains 349 war graves from World War I. Like a staggering 23,000 other cemeteries in more than 150 countries worldwide, it is meticulously maintained by an organisation that I have come to respect and admire: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

The CWGC does exactly what its name suggests: it ensures that nearly 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth Forces who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. As I have travelled the world in recent decades, I have visited scores of CWGC cemeteries — from Burma to Russia, from northern Africa to Western Europe. All are preserved to the most exacting of standards.

This year is the centenary of the CWGC, which presents all of us with a fitting opportunity to salute an organisation whose values and aims are as relevant today as they were when they were instigated in 1917.

Yesterday, in anticipation of Armistice Day this Saturday, the CWGC revealed details of its new Commonwealth War Graves Foundation (CWGF), a charity whose aim is to highlight the commission’s work, and take it to a wider — and younger — audience, through a series of new projects.

The CWGC owes its origins to a schoolmaster, Sir Fabian Ware, who had the vision and determination to find a fitting response to the public’s anguish over the mounting numbers of dead from World War I.

When the Great War broke out in August 1914, Ware was told that, at 45, he was too old to fight. Instead, he became the commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross.

When he saw the vast list of casualties, he wanted to ensure that the final resting place of the dead would be recorded and preserved.

In May 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter with the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) as its President and Ware as its Vice Chairman.

Three eminent architects, including Lutyens, were commissioned to design the cemeteries and memorials, and Rudyard Kipling was appointed as literary adviser to propose inscriptions.

The principles of the organisation — renamed the CWGC in 1960 — are that each of the war dead should be commemorated by name on a headstone or memorial, and that these should be permanent. Furthermore, headstones should be uniform with no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.

Today, the CWGC, whose head office is in Maidenhead, Berkshire, has an annual budget of some £65 million and employs 1,300 staff worldwide, including 850 gardeners who maintain memorial and burial grounds that are the equivalent size of 994 football pitches.

The CWGC’s work, under the leadership of Director General Victoria Wallace, is voluntarily funded by six Commonwealth countries: the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

The financial support is proportionate to the number of graves for each nation’s dead, with the largest (the UK) providing 78 per cent of funding and the smallest (India) just over 1 per cent.

The commission’s largest cemetery — to commemorate 12,000 lives — is at Tyne Cot in Belgium. Its smallest is at Ocracoke Island, off North Carolina, U.S., which is the final resting place of only four British sailors, whose bodies were recovered after their ship was sunk by a German submarine in May 1942.

I was invited by the CWGC to visit its Western Europe Area HQ in Beaurains, near Arras. Richard Nichol, Area Director (Operations), told me he found it ‘humbling’ working for the commission’s largest region: with graves in France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and the Baltics, the Western Europe Area accounts for 50 per cent of the CWGC’s resources.

I visited the headstone, blacksmith, carpentry and recovery-of-human-remains units. Typically, the remains of 20 to 30 soldiers are still found each year in Western Europe, usually owing to new construction projects or farm work. Once discovered, the CWGC immediately sends out a specialist team to recover both the body parts and anything that is found with them: the relevant country is notified as soon as the nationality of the victim is known, perhaps the result of a piece of uniform or a cap badge being found with the remains.

On the very day I visited the area headquarters, human remains were found near Bethune, in northern France, which were believed to be that of a Great War British soldier.

Britain and other nations will often use DNA samples and detective work in an attempt to identify the casualty. Whether or not the victim is eventually identified, he or she is always given a burial with full military honours.

The headstone unit at Beaurains designs and makes up to 12,000 headstones a year using 34 different types of stone and a similar number of patterns.

Aware that I have amassed the world’s largest collection of VCs, the unit presented me with a block of white stone bearing the pattern — a replica of the Victoria Cross — that goes on the grave of every VC recipient.

Once they were hand-carved, but now such engravings are done by a machine fitted with a diamond cutter.

It was explained to me that all the gravestones have to be the same height of 813 millimetres (32 inches). There are strict guidelines for the distance between the rows of gravestones and the gap between each headstone in the same row.

Borders both in front and behind the headstones have to be of a specific width, too, and the grass between the gravestones has to be cut every seven to ten days.

Ideally, the CWGC ensures there is a rose either side of each headstone, as well as two plants in front of it to limit the damage done by splashing rainfall. The broad aim is for the plants to resemble those of an English country garden.

During my day-long visit, I attended nearly a dozen cemeteries and memorials, including the towering Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates more than 72,000 British and South African servicemen who died at the Somme during the Great War and have no known grave. Weeks earlier, I had visited the CWGC’s Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, which bears the names of more than 54,000 soldiers who died before August 16, 1917, and who also have no known grave.

Near to Ypres, at the Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, I attended the grave of Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar, MC, the only man to be awarded two VCs during the Great War. As with Arthur Henderson’s medal group, Chavasse’s decorations are part of my VC collection on display at the Imperial War Museum.

In France, Belgium and all around the world, I have seen the work of the CWGC at close hand. It is an organisation that we should cherish and support as it continues to do all it can to preserve the memory of our fallen war heroes.

To quote the words, chosen by Rudyard Kipling, on the Stone of Remembrance at Thiepval and other memorials: ‘Their name liveth for evermore.’

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