THE centenary of the outbreak of the First World War next year will bring the greatest peacetime challenge the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has faced since its creation.
Dubbed the 1914-18 Project, the commission is preparing for the world’s eyes to be on its sites over the next four years as people remember those killed a century ago as empires clashed.
As well as a series of events at its sites, work is under way to make sure each cemetery and memorial is in perfect condition ahead of unprecedented visitor numbers.
Renovations across the commission’s northern Europe area include the replacement of headstones and memorial panels, re-engraving, stonework, and building, while gardening teams have replaced borders and turf and embarked on a huge replanting programme.
The area’s director, Ian Hussein, said: “The maintenance and conservation of all our sites is an ongoing job and we do it day in, day out.
“But, of course, with the centenary what we are seeking to do is try and carry out as much work that we would do in advance so that in the centenary period we are not disturbing the visitors to our cemeteries and memorials.
“Across the world we have commemorations at 24,000 locations in 150 countries so it is really a worldwide task. And those locations can vary from a single headstone to perhaps some of our larger cemeteries such as Tyne Cot [at Ypres in Belgium].
“Our task is to make sure that they are well-kept and well maintained and in good condition not only for the centenary period but for evermore.”
He said numbers of visitors to First World War sites are continually rising, with people coming from all over the world, not only to commemorate, but to understand the history of both the First and Second World Wars.
“A particular increase in visitors are educational visits, coachloads of children coming, and that’s a great development. If you can get the young to understand and remember then they’re the future generations.”
He added: “We do stand in the background but what we get out of it is the satisfaction of the job we do.
“It’s not about being in the limelight. We’re here to make sure that those who gave their lives are remembered and that really is a privilege and an honour to be able to do.”
As part of centenary preparations, five sites in the France and northern Europe area have been chosen as “iconic sites” – Tyne Cot, St Symphorien [Mons, Belgium], Nieuwpoort Memorial [Flanders, Belgium], Menin Gate [at Ypres], Island of Ireland Peace Park [at Messine, near Ypres] – which are expected to see huge numbers of visitors.
At Tyne Cot, the CWGC’s largest site war cemetery, work has included re-engraving 7,800 headstones, as well as a five-year project to re-engrave the cemetery’s memorial panels which bear the names of 35,000 dead soldiers. A team of 35 craftsmen have undertaken the work, including specialist stonemasons, a carpenter, a blacksmith and a signwriter, while gardening teams have spent hours replanting borders, mowing grass, and replacing turf.
Pascal Wostyn, 35, who works at the site, said: “Here we have an enormous project.
“We renovated almost eight kilometres [five miles] of borders, we replanted 36,000 plants, 2,200 roses, returfed 7.5 kilo- metres of borders.
“Also the works team did a lot of renovation, they replaced 2,000 headstones, re-engraved 7,000 headstones, cleaned chapels, repaired walls and all sorts, so the project is quite enormous.
“In my eyes the cemetery has to look good all year round, every year, but now it’s 100 years ago that the war was on it’s important that everything looks perfect for the visitors.”
At Menin Gate, where the Last Post is played every evening at 8pm in a lasting act of remembrance to soldiers who lost their lives, a huge renovation project is also under way. The gate features almost 55,000 names engraved on to its walls, inside and out.
Works supervisor Eric McAtear said work at the memorial includes “inpainting” of panels – renewing paint in the engraved names – as well as replacing panels, repairing roofing and replacing lightning conductors.
Mr McAtear, 51, who was born in Bridgend, Wales, said: “More and more people come every evening and where there is a commemoration like 11 November it’s unbelievable how many people are here.
“It’s not just for that day, but the day after and the day after. It’s very important for everyone who visits.”
The laborious process of in-painting involves pasting paper over the names that are engraved in parts of the gate under cover, then burning it off with a blowtorch.
The paper burns away over the letter, but not where it sits directly on stone, so paint can then be sprayed into the names, and when dry the paper can be scraped off.
Of the centenary renovation work, Mr McAtear said: “It’s very important for us that we can get them maintained to a standard of excellence that we have in our charter.
“Every person, every casualty that’s on these walls, paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives, so we try and do a good tribute to their name and make sure that we do an excellent job.”
‘Someone will see you at work and they’ll thank you – it’s the world’s most rewarding job’
There are few jobs as rewarding as helping to preserve memories of those who died in the First and Second World Wars, according to a veteran war graves stonemason.
As special efforts are made to ensure every headstone and memorial panel is pristine and properly engraved, Tony Edwards said the work he did during his time as a stonemason at the commission was the most rewarding job he has ever done.
Mr Edwards, 49, from Thornton Heath, London, started work as a stonemason with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1988 and is now a supervisor in its northern Europe area.
He said: “I love the work, basically.
“It’s very rewarding. There are very few jobs in the world I think where you can actually be proud when you go home at night. You can be paid, but it’s not the same feeling.”
When he first joined the commission, Mr Edwards’ work included re-engraving headstones “in situ” as part of ongoing maintenance of all the graves.
“You’d be sitting in a cemetery or laying down re-engraving a personal inscription and suddenly you get a tap on the shoulder from somebody.
“You look up, and they just say thank you. And for me that was probably the most rewarding job, that somebody had come, they could see what you’re doing and your work was respected.
“You’re bringing back that name, you’re bringing back that personal inscription.
“In effect it felt that you’re bringing back to life the memory, and the memory’s the thing that’s most important, I think, for everybody.”
Labour and duties that cross the generations
ITS work may not be widely known, but for many of its employees the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is a family affair.
Many followed in the footsteps of their parents after growing up seeing its work first-hand, employees said.
David Brown, senior head gardener for the Armentieres area in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais area of France, remembers joining his father in cemeteries as a child.
Mr Brown, 49, who joined the commission in 1985, said: “My dad started as a gardener and finished as a district inspector.
“As a kid I used to go around with him sometimes. I’ve always known my dad working for the commission, I’ve lived the commission. There’s a lot of people like that.”
Mr Brown, whose father is from Aberdeenshire, was born in Kingston upon Thames and moved to France when he joined the commission as a pupil gardener. He and his team look after more than 60 sites, maintaining and improving them, replanting borders and replacing turf when needed.
“Two thirds is being on site with the lads,” he said. “It’s what it’s all about, being on site, meeting visitors, that’s why I joined the commission.
“It’s great to meet families and relatives, it’s really emotional.”
However, he said, there is little chance of his daughters, now 26 and 21, following in his footsteps, adding: “I don’t think they will. One is still studying and the other is an English teacher here in France.”
Steve Arnold follows in the footsteps of both his uncle and his grandfather.
His grandfather stayed at the commission for the next 33 years, retiring at 65, Mr Arnold said, and his uncle also joined in the mid-1960s, leaving during the late 1980s to return to the UK. “I joined in July 1984 after being contacted by the commission’s northern Europe area office and asked if I wanted to join and start a career with the commission,” he said.