Just a short drive from the famous Wellington Quarry in Arras, northern France, is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Experience. This is a relatively new museum, where people can learn about the CWGC, how it operates, the work they do and why it is so important. It is a very serene and uncluttered space, managing to combine education with an air of dignity and gravitas.
The CWGC Experience was built to show visitors behind the scenes of this remarkable and historic organisation, set up by Fabian Ware in 1917 to honour those killed in World War I. Visitors can see the craftspeople at work, watching them through windows, and really appreciate all that goes into keeping the cemeteries so immaculate. Some of the statistics are impressive - they look after nearly 100,000,000m2 of lawn just in Western Europe alone, nearly 800 miles of planted borders and have over 100 miles of hedges to cut.
The work of the CWGC is explained through audio guides, available in several languages, which really add an extra dimension to the signage and are well worth listening to as you go round the clearly marked route.
The visitors centre shows that there is far more to the CWGC than the obvious beautiful greenery that we see on a visit to any of the cemeteries around the world - there are metalworkers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and other crafts people who all work to create those serene and restful places.
As you walk around, you can watch some of these in action inside the workshops, where you can see the machinery and craftsmanship that goes into everything they make. The headstones are quite often refreshed as stone weathers over time - there is a rule that you have to be able to read the inscription from 2metres away, and if not, the stone is taken away and re-engraved. They try to avoid having to make a whole new headstone, but sometimes it is unavoidable.
Not only do the cemeteries need regular refreshing and maintenance, but bodies are still being found to this day, which need identifying and re-burial.
I found it fascinating and was particularly interested in how they identify remains to at least get a rough idea of who someone was. It is not the CWGC's job to identify the remains it finds, but to recover them so that the correct government can do so. Personal papers and uniforms rarely survive so it is the emphemera found with the body which provides clues and which are always repatriated with the body if it is thought they belonged to them.
The bones they find can reveal a great deal; not just the age of the casualty but the way they are laid out tells if it was a formal burial during the war or if they remain where they fell. Injuries can reveal if a person died from explosions, bombardment or hand to hand combat.
A scrap of uniform or a pair of boots can help narrow down the regiment, a whistle can identify an officer, who used them to signal the command to go over the top in World War I.
Every nation wore different boots, however, many soldiers would swap boots so they can't solely be relied on for identification. Apparently the Australian boots were the most comfortable.
If a badge is found near the arm then it probably shows the soldiers battalion. If it is found lower down the body, then it may mean that he had pocketed someone else's badge. Personal items such as forks or combs could provide more clues as to where a soldier was from. Helmets however were never swapped, so if a body is found wearing a British helmet, there is a high probability that it is a British casualty.
The bodies are always buried/re-buried with dignity and with full military honours, usually with their comrades and in a cemetery near where they died. The ceremonies are attended by families, veterans associations and personnel from their regiment. If there are descendants they can choose some words to be engraved on the headstone. The headstone is installed some time after the service. Historically, small coffins were used to bury bodies which just had partial remains but these days the governments pay for full size coffins.
A visit here is both enlightening and humbling. Their sense of pride in the work they do, which is matched in the truly flawless cemeteries, really shine through: it was moving and actually a very positive experience to see such care taken in honouring the war dead.
VISITING THE CWGC EXPERIENCE
Address: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 5-7 rue Angele Richard, 62217 Beaurains
Opening Times: The CWGC Experience is closed at weekends, on French public holidays and during December and January for maintenance - the final day of operations will be Tuesday 30 November 2022. Please note that the centre will also be closed for public holidays from 15 to 18 April, on 29 April, 6 May, 6 June, 15 July and 31 October
Price: Entry is free.
Staff speak English and all interpretation boards and audio guides are available in English. The site is wheelchair and pushchair accessible. There is free parking on site except for buses.