Today the BVP2017 students visited the Lens 14-18 Museum, and numerous cemeteries including Cabaret Rouge, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, and Givenchy-en-Gohelle. After spending some time at the incredible Ring of Remembrance, they departed the Arras region and travelled to Bernières-sur-Mer to begin the Second World War portion of the program.
(Please note: the students blog in their language of preference)
Today the BVP2017 participants were privileged to visit the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette French Cemetery and the Ring of Remembrance. The early hours of the day were very foggy, and the ground was consequently covered with a thick coat of mist. As we entered the cemetery, the thousands of crosses peering out from the layer of fog was a sight I will never forget. It gave the place a feeling of true eternal rest for the more than 40,000 French soldiers buried there. Besides the fog, the sheer number of crosses was shocking. There were thousands upon thousands of crosses in front of me. And then I looked behind me, and there was an equally gigantic number. Behind the central church, I saw even more including the numerous mass graves in the forms of burial pits often holding over 1,000 soldiers. The cemetery was certainly beautiful and it definitely honoured the soldiers well, but I also found that the huge number of graves in front of my very own eyes was nothing but shocking and saddening. Beside the cemetery was the Ring of Remembrance. Its purpose was to list every soldier who fell during the First World War in Northern France alphabetically. There was no order by rank, nationality or allegiance. Only the names of every single man. With nearly 600,000 names listed, the monument actually gave me a feeling of hope and unity, and I ultimately departed feeling very positively moved by it.
–Cole Oien, Calgary, Alberta
Private Frederick Joseph Belliveau lived a quiet life; Born and raised in Joggins Mines, Nova Scotia, he became a bookkeeper. His life was peaceful and quiet until the First World War broke out in August 1914. Frederick enlisted with the 42nd battalion in River Herbert, Nova Scotia, on May 29th, 1916 and he was killed in action on April 9th, 1917 during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
I couldn’t comprehend how I could properly commemorate a fallen soldier. What could I say to someone who gave everything for their country? All I can say to Private Frederick Joseph Belliveau is thank you. Thank you for being brave, thank you for fighting for your country, thank you for the risk you took and in the end, thank you for offering the ultimate sacrifice. You gave your today for our tomorrow. That sacrifice, your remembrance and your legacy is ours to hold high and never let die.
Before we parted I left two gifts: The first, a Canadian penny, because a penny is symbolic that I visited the soldiers’ grave. Le deuxième cadeau, un drapeau de l’Acadie; le drapeau de notre patrie. Never did I believe that I would be able to meet Frederick Joseph Belliveau, but I’m so thankful that I was able to. I now know that no matter what happens to us, we’re strong and can get through anything.
Nous sommes toujours Acadie fort.
-Claire Belliveau, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
At the Noyelle-sur-Mer Chinese cemetery, row upon row of CWGC headstones are inscribed with the date of death: 1917. The graves are not for typical soldiers on the Western Front, they are for the Chinese labourers who worked behind the scenes clearing battlefields, digging trenches, and building roads and railways. They struggled with language and were separated from family and home yet they got barely any recognition for their service. From a Western perspective, they died unglamorously, mostly from the Spanish Flu. It’s possible their families never received the news of their deaths. Even if they did, the words would have been incomprehensible, much like how the epitaph is meaningless to the average person visiting these graves. The translations are nowhere near perfect. One of the four different types of inscriptions reads “a noble duty bravely done” when in fact, I would translate 勇往直前 (yong wang zhi qian) as “continued courage and perseverance even in the face of great adversity”. Proper recognition of the contributions and bravery of these men is lacking. They travelled long distances from the ports of Qingdao to the Western battlefields, and it may be an even longer road to reconciliation, recognition, and understanding of a truly global picture of the World Wars.
This weekend our Beaverbrook Vimy Prize group has been visiting a large number of cemeteries and memorials in the Ypres Salient, as well as the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial on the Somme. Visits such as these underline the extent of the work undertaken by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but also the emotional impact of the cemeteries and memorials. In respect of this, for today’s post we are sharing another video that was initially broadcast live by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery as part of their #Passchendaele100 commemorations.
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery has a very interesting history to its origins, with a moment of war-time romance that ensured its future care. In addition, there is a unique commemoration of modern art built alongside it, that helps visualize the dates on which those interred within the cemetery died.
Today, the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize group is visiting Essex Farm Cemetery, the Passchendaele Memorial and taking part in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. In May 1915, it is believed Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” while operating at Essex Farm Cemetery. To mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission historians broadcast a series of live videos while visiting CWGC sites. Today we share the recording made at Essex Farm Cemetery.
Following the constitution of the Imperial War Graves Commission by Royal Charter in May 1917, the Commission was officially charged with the care of the dead from all of the British Empire’s armed forces. The scope and magnitude of such an undertaking was and still is perplexing. Even the seemingly “simple”, (though it never was), task of collecting the bodies represented an astronomical amount of required manpower. An example of the scope of work facing the Commission can be found in the description of Lorette Ridge by Corporal Becker, 75th (Mississauga) Battalion, who observed the area while in the Lens sector during the build up to Hill 70 in July 1917:
“It was said that the bones of at least 40,000 men were bleaching on that hill… British Labour Battalions were now at work gathering up the remains, identifying them from the discs found here and there among the bones, bundling such personal articles as remained and tagging them for French authorities who would subsequently forward them to next of kin… The memory of that great battlefield is with me yet. I wandered through the shell pitted area frequently in those two weeks and even now can see the white bones, fragments of red pants and blue coats, the small caps… the grey of the German uniforms, the leather boots with foot bones in them, the broken rifles, the rusty ammunition, the skulls – many with bullet holes in them – the watches, decayed leather wallets with personal articles in them, the wire and stumps and stones and trenches and shell holes. It was impossible to identify any particular skeleton… The Labour units had not made much headway on it in the two months they had been there… Here and there one would come upon a rifle stuck bayonet down in the ground with the remains of a cap on the butt – mute evidence of the effort of the soldier whose skeleton lay alongside to bring assistance to him as he lay helplessly wounded – assistance that had not reached him for two and one-half years. I wish that some of our fire-eaters at home could have seen that ground as I saw it in 1917. (Becker, Silhouettes of The Great War, p. 105).
In the midst of the public turmoil being caused by the discussion of Sir Fabian Ware’s long term intentions for the Commission, the simple need for at least some sort of graves registration system was not lost on those serving at the front. In fact, it was the complete lack of such a system that was causing them distress. Canadian Stretcher-Bearer Ralph Watson lamented to his wife in a letter dated 8 July 1917:
‘The dead stay where they are, with a rubber sheet or an old sandbag, to cover their faces. Later, maybe that night or the next, a fatigue party will climb over the parados and scratch a grave a few yards from the trench, cursing the flares, and flopping, as Fritz plays a machine gun casually, just on the off chance, all along the ground behind, as a man might play a hose on a lawn.’
‘These graves are not marked. How could they be? Some one takes all the letters and things out of the pockets; eventually, if the man who has them doesn’t get blown to pieces, they reach the Quartermaster, who sends them home. Some one writes a letter, and that’s all. No advance, no spectacular raid, not even repelling an attack. So many dead Hienies, so many dead Britishers. And so she goes. And such is a “trip in” ‘ (Watson, Letters of a Canadian Stretcher-Bearer, 1914-1917, p. 138).
In today’s post on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission we continue our discussion from last week, looking at the tension that was rising from Sir Fabian Ware’s desire to keep all graves near the battlefields. Ware’s small team found itself battling with wealthy and influential families who wished to have their relatives exhumed and repatriated to England for a family burial.
The debate between repatriation and equal treatment of graves carried on after the war and Sir Fabian Ware was prompted to release official statements to the press, outlining the Commission’s vision, stating: “a higher ideal than that of private burial at home is embodied in these war cemeteries in foreign lands, where those who fought and fell together, officers and men, lie together in their last resting place, facing the line they gave their lives to maintain” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
The issue eventually came to a head in a parliamentary debate in May 1920. Commission advocates insisted that the war had “fused and welded into one, without distinction of race, colour or creed”, men from all over the Empire who were “ready to die for one common cause that they all understood” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25). Countering, critics of the Commission called it “a terrible confusion of thought… the idea that you are entitled to take the bodies of heroes from the care of relatives and build them into a national state memorial” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25). In advocacy for the additional memorials, Burdett Coutts, MP for Westminster, noted that there were parents with no grave to visit. “Their boys were missing and their bodies remained undiscovered. For those parents the bitter reality was that they would never be able to have a name inscribed on a headstone in a known resting place” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
Ultimately, the House voted in favour of the Commission, believing it represented the desires of most of the Empire’s citizens. The vote had finally ratified the last six years of the Commission’s work (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
Having gained official recognition and responsibility for their tasks in February 1915, the Graves Registration Commission set to work with great expediency. Despite entire sections of the country being occupied by enemy forces, Sir Fabian Ware had to begin negotiating with France for the acquisition of lands for burial. The land and care of graves was offered in perpetuity, but the Graves Registration Commission accepted only the land, choosing to keep maintenance of the graves a British responsibility (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15). In cooperation with the French, the cemetery sites were chosen, giving consideration to post-war agricultural needs and proximity to housing. Furthermore, regulations regarding the space between graves and width of paths between rows were determined, in order to reduce the amount of space taken up by the dozens of cemeteries that would surely occupy the countryside after the war (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
After gaining official recognition in February 1915, the work of the Graves Registration Commission had become well-known in the Commonwealth, stirring both positive and negative reactions. Although not the Commission’s responsibility, public requests for information and photographs soon followed. By March 1915, Ware agreed to assume this task, and by August, 2,000 photographs depicting four graves in each had been printed, to be dispatched to enquiring relatives. These were sent along with information cards that listed the grave’s condition and directions to the nearest corresponding railway station should anyone wish to visit after the war (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
Meanwhile, the desire to treat all as equals in death had drawn the ire of various wealthy and influential families. They rebuked the idea that officers and men should share common graves and many were initially successful in exhuming and repatriating remains to the United Kingdom. These repatriations had largely been carried out clandestinely, as an order banning exhumation had already been issued in March 1915 by the French Army’s Commander-In-Chief Marshal Joffre. In perhaps one of the most macabre aspects of the war, the Graves Registration Commission now had to contend with not just the perils of war, but also clandestine “grave robbers” hired to exhume bodies in the dark of night and sneak them back across the English Channel.
We will look at the conclusion of this debate in next week’s post.
After Lt.-Col. Edward Stewart’s visit to Sir Fabian Ware in October 1914, his Mobile Unit’s work had gained support, and eventually official recognition in February 1915, becoming officially responsible for finding, marking and registering all graves in France (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). As the war’s attrition increased, public pressure from those at home had re-enforced the need for a registration such as Ware was proposing. Letters were being written to newspapers and government officials, both requesting information for the graves of loved ones, but also expressing angst that none was being provided.
“One such, on 9 January 1915, told of a woman who had tried to locate the grave of her brother and had been disturbed to find that every trace of the cross or other identifying marks described to her by his comrades had disappeared” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). Renamed the Graves Registration Commission, they set to their work with haste and purpose. Nearly a year into the war, Sir Fabian Ware’s men were already facing a backlog of thousands of unregistered graves. The task of registration “meant locating and marking a burial site and where necessary erecting an inscribed wooden cross” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). Once registered, the grave’s details were recorded by the officer responsible for that battle sector, who in turn created a report of all graves his sector (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
A member of the Graves Registration Commission remarked that the work required “considerable patience and some skill as an amateur detective to find the grave of some poor fellow who has been shot in some out of the way turnip field and hurriedly buried, but I feel my modest efforts amply rewarded when I return a day or two later with a wooden cross with a neat inscription and plant it at the head of his grave, for I have the proud satisfaction of knowing that I have done some slight honour to one brave man who has died for his country” (H. Broadley, quoted in Longworth’s unpublished manuscript for The Unending Vigil, sourced from Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
During the period of May to October of 1915, Ware’s men registered 31,182 graves alone.
In May we marked the 100th Anniversary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by introducing Sir Fabian Ware, a 45-year-old education director who, in September 1914, went to France desperate to serve his country. When Lt.-Col. Edward Stewart visited Ware’s Mobile Unit for the Red Cross in October, he was pleased with the additional work and care Ware’s staff had undertaken for the graves. In a Bethune Cemetery, Ware’s men had ensured British graves received labelled wooden crosses. Yet even at this early stage, Stewart was alarmed at the seemingly temporary nature with which graves registration was being treated:
“On most of these graves the names were only inscribed in pencil and we gave instructions at once that they should be painted on, on the reverse side to the pencil inscriptions”
(Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
Besides the pencil markings on wooden crosses, registration had only gone so far as the cemetery book kept by the original French caretaker, and Ware realized its incomplete state was probably reflective of all burials across the entire Western Front. With Stewart’s backing, Ware’s Mobile Unit was provided with the means to undertake the marking, registering, and tending of “all the British graves it could find” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).