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Duty of Care - War Graves around France

Duty of Care - War Graves around France

In countless foreign fields lie those whose sacrifice gave us the freedom we enjoy today. The War Graves Photographic Project is documenting their final resting places as Trevor Bridge explains.

 

During the early hours of 4th November 1943 a Halifax bomber from RAF Tempsford in England crashed into the Rocher de Bourboulas near Marcols-les-Eaux, an isolated village set high within the dense forests of the Ardèche mountains. Tempsford airfield, one of the best kept secrets of WW2, was used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). From there underground agents and supplies were dropped into occupied Europe; this flight was parachuting arms to the French Resistance. Of the eight on board, seven perished. The following day they were buried by local people in the village cemetery.

Clinging to the rocky slopes of the Glueyre valley, the remoteness and difficult terrain of Marcols-les-Eaux made it ideal Résistance territory. Sixty-five years after this tragic event Jocelyn and I found ourselves in this same cemetery. As volunteers for ‘The War Graves Photographic Project’ (TWGPP) we were there to photograph the graves. TWGPP operates as a joint venture with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC); its remit being to photograph war graves and memorials worldwide and place them on a searchable database on the internet for families and researchers.

We soon found the headstones, their simple design contrasting with the elaborate French memorials and, as always, we paused for a moment of reflection. No matter how often we photograph the graves of the fallen we are always conscious of their significance. Our system is well tried out; Jocelyn takes the photographs, I record. The inscriptions on the graves demonstrated the diverse nationalities that fought, illustrating the difficulties of visiting the graves of loved ones in such distant and remote spots. From the RAF were Jacques Barthélemy, Henry Hodges, Ronald Pulling and Harry Smith. With them were Reginald Nott, an Australian and Harold Penfold, a Canadian. We were also reminded of their youth, being aged between 19 and 27. Another, later, headstone was particularly moving. The sole survivor of the crash, John Brough, a Tasmanian who died in 1994, had his ashes lain next to the graves and so is now reunited with his crew.

TWGPP send us a list of sites annually and this influences our travel plans. Through this we’ve seen many beautiful and interesting parts of our adoptive country, some well off the beaten track.

At Villars-Le-Pautel in the beautiful Haute-Saône, whilst photographing the graves of an aircrew, a lady laying flowers nearby came over. When we explained our assignment she embraced us and invited us chez nous. Over coffee she explained that as a young girl she was lying in bed when she heard the aeroplane crash into nearby woods. As we left she took a cutting from a plant in her garden and presented it in a lovely jar emblazoned with the flower of Lorraine – the thistle. Jocelyn was able to explain that it was also the emblem of her native Scotland.

Another lady came to us in Vouziers in the Ardennes as we were looking for the grave of Private E. Woodley of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. She took us to see the graves of her husband and her friends and neighbours. She was very cheerful and delighted in gossiping about them and at one particularly flamboyant grave she told us ‘She was just like that in life!’

We’ve met many people through our work. The Commission’s gardeners are always glad to converse and in Tarragona in Spain we were grandly driven by the British Consul in his diplomatic car to the cemetery. He holds the key to its gates.
On the Côte d’Azur we were struck by the contrast between the bustle of the resorts and the serenity of the cemeteries, only a stone’s throw away. In Nice, away from the crowded Promenade des Anglais, we visited the British Cemetery where WW1 graves are set amongst the graves of wealthy expatriates who frequented the city in the early 1900s. We went to cemeteries at beautiful St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, set on a rocky peninsular, and Cap-d’Ail, which clings spectacularly to the side of a limestone mountain. At Menton, tourists teemed along its maze of narrow streets amongst ancient colourful buildings unaware of the cemetery set back on a quiet hillside where in the French Carré Militaire the grave of 24-year-old Gunner James Young of Bolton overlooks the sea.

Whilst the majority of cemeteries are on the battlefields of northern France, there were many actions across the country. For instance airmen are buried in the Vienne at Charroux and Béruges; in the Charente at Brillac and Hiesse; at Châtelaillon-Plage in the Charente-Maritime; at Limoges in the Haute-Vienne and in the Dordogne at Excideuil and Périgueux.

In 1944, during Operation Bulbasket, the SAS were dropped into occupied France to cut the Paris to Bordeaux railway near Poitiers and delay Germans travelling to the Normandy beachheads. After several successes, including directing an airborne assault on a fuel train at Châtellerault, the Germans attacked them. Thirty SAS men and a US pilot who had crashed and joined them are buried at Rom in the Deux-Sevres and there is a memorial to three others with no known graves. We’ve found a number of such burials, occurring when local people quickly interred casualties in family graves out of site of the enemy. They even held funerals for Allied combatants, under the guise of them being deceased villagers.

It is well-known how war cemeteries are kept immaculately by the CWGC, but it is not always recognised how in graveyards and cemeteries across France local people ensure the graves are pristine. Flowers are placed at them and many communities have created their own monuments and honour those that fell with annual ceremonies.

The most isolated place we’ve visited is the village of Laprade deep in the rain-swept forests of the Montagne Noir in the Aude. Frenchman Henri Sevenet, serving in the SOE as Henry Thomas, worked with the Résistance there organising sabotage, twice escaping to England via the Pyrénées. Highly decorated, he is buried with Résistance members in an imposing granite monument.

Marseille was the base for Indian troops in France in WW1 and many sailors and troops worked there or passed through. Mazargues War Cemetery with 1800 casualties is huge. We spent three days photographing each grave, many of them from India, Egypt and China. During this time we made friends with Bruno Mountford, the Commission’s gardener, charged with maintaining cemeteries in SE France and Corsica. On our final morning he arrived on his beloved Harley-Davidson, highly polished specially for us.

 

If you would like to find out more, or obtain a photograph of a headstone of someone buried in a war grave in France or any other country, you can obtain one through www.twgpp.org.

THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION

During the First World War in 1914 Sir Fabian Ware, Commander of a Red Cross unit in France, became aware there was no system for recording graves of the fallen so his unit began marking and registering them.
The War Office recognised the importance of this for relatives and for the morale of troops. In 1915 Ware’s unit became the Graves Registration Commission, then the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917.

The Commission appointed three architects to design the cemeteries and memorials, Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker and Reginald Blomfield. Rudyard Kipling advised on inscriptions. The principles of equality were declared; the dead should be commemorated with no distinction of rank, race or creed. Repatriation of remains was prohibited; not being in keeping with this ideology and contrary to the brotherhood that had established between ranks at the front. It was not until 1982 during the Falklands War that repatriation to the UK began.

Working with landscape architect, Gertrude Jekyll, the architects created walled cemeteries with simple Portland stone headstones in an ‘English Garden’ setting. Lutyens’ Stone of Remembrance with Kipling’s inscription ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’ and Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice provide focal points. Jekyll’s love of cottage garden plants is evident and species native to the casualties’ countries were used to create sentimental links. Memorials were constructed for the missing; the largest of these, Thiepval, is a massive arched structure designed by Lutyens, engraved with the names of the fallen from the ‘‘First Battle of the Somme’’ in 1916 who have no known grave.

New cemeteries were created at the end of WW2; the first, Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, was completed in 1949.

 

The Imperial War Graves Commission became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960.

The immaculately manicured lawns, colourful flowers and clipped hedges of the cemeteries, as well as providing peaceful resting places for the fallen are often ‘green oases’. They offer serene sanctuary from the hurly-burly of cities, provide cool shade in wild and barren landscapes and are a respite from the wide open plains of Northern France.

The Commission is very active today, caring for the graves and memorials of 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen from both wars on 23,000 sites in 150 countries. www.cwgc.org.

 

PHOTOS: Trevor Bridge & Roger Moss

© Living Magazine. Published October 2015