British War cemeteries rarely fail to move visitors, many of whom express their surprise and sorrow to find that there are often so many cemeteries in a small area - particularly true of the First World War battlefield areas. There are more surprises to come, however, when one learns that when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's work was "completed" during the 1930s, there were burials and commemorations in over  100 countries, ranging from the largest cemeteries with tens of thousands of graves, to isolated, single-grave sites on Aegean and Pacific islands. The degree of care which goes into maintaining them all is immediately apparent and is often remarked upon in the visitors' books. This article is a summary of  general facts about just one of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's areas of activity - France.

The Commission's France Area office at Beaurains is responsible for the care and maintenance of the 691,301 burials and commemorations in France. The graves are located in 2,931 cemeteries throughout the country, but mostly to be found in the Great War battlefield areas in the Somme, Nord and Pas-de-Calais regions. (The second World War cemeteries are mostly in the Calvados region.)

There are also, in France, 22 memorials to the Missing, commemorating 218,201 servicemen from all countries of the Commonwealth.

In addition to the Commonwealth burials and commemorations, the Commission maintains the graves of 14,584 foreign nationals buried in Commission cemeteries.

Of the 691,301 burials and commemorations, 579,266 are of United Kingdom forces, 52,831 Canadian, 38,008 Australian, 8,192 New Zealand, 3,913 South African and 8,888 from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

When the cemeteries were completed they seemed so lasting and permanent that many of their builders thought that apart from the obvious regular attention which would have to be given to the horticultural aspect, there would be little else to be done in the way of maintenance, but time has proved them wrong.  The Commission's France Area now employs about 420 staff who work to maintain the cemeteries and memorials to the high standard which the Commission demands. 80% of the staff work on horticultural maintenance and development and 15% in the Works department, caring for the physical appearance of the sites.

The central role of the horticulture operation is to ensure that the original standards and quality of all planting at cemeteries and memorials is maintained. This involves planting schedules, which have to be planned in great detail, pruning of trees and shrubs and the development of turf strategies to keep the cemeteries aesthetically correct, but in an efficient manner.

There are 35 France Area horticultural groups and in an average year they will purchase 45,000 roses, 18,000 shrubs, 8,000 bulbs and 400 trees. In addition, the Area's own nursery will produce 74,000 border plants.

The main role of the works operation is to maintain and repair the fabric and headstones in the various sites. This involves the inspection and maintenance of over 476,000 headstones, 756 Crosses of Sacrifice, 225 Stones of Remembrance and numerous cemetery features and walls. This is a mammoth responsibility and in order to meet it,  France Area employs 10 mobile teams who move from site to site, working to a six-year maintenance cycle.

The Principal Regions

PAS-DE-CALAIS - Here there are 628 Commission cemeteries containing over 180,000 First World War burials and approximately 4,500 from the Second World War.

There are also 7 Memorials to the Missing commemorating over 96,000 Commonwealth servicemen who have no known graves. These are located at LE TOURET (UK and Undivided India), NEUVE CHAPELLE (Undivided India), LOOS (UK), VIMY (Canada), ARRAS (UK and South Africa), GREVILLERS (New Zealand) and VIS-EN-ARTOIS (UK and South Africa.)

NORD - The Nord region contains 342 Commission cemeteries containing the graves of 64,490 Comonwealth servicemen. 61,346 died during the First World War, and 3,144 during the Second World War.

There are 3 Memorials to the Missing, commemorating 11,610 servicemen by name. They are located at LOUVERVAL (UK and South Africa), CITE BONJEAN (New Zealand) and DUNKIRK (UK and Undivided India.)

SOMME - In the Somme sector there are 410 cemeteries containing the graves of 64,490 Commonwealth servicemen, 127,863 from the First World War and 1,374 from the Second World War.

There are 5 Memorials to the Missing in the Somme region, at THIEPVAL (UK and South Africa), POZIERES (UK and South Africa), VILLERS BRETONNEUX (Australia), CATERPILLAR VALLEY (New Zealand) and BEAUMONT-HAMEL (Newfoundland).

CALVADOS - The commemorations in the Calvados region are predominantly those of servicemen who died in the Normandy Campaign, June to August, 1944. In the region there are 116 cemeteries containing 25,078 graves. All but 219 are Second World War burials. The only Memorial to the Missing in this area is at BAYEUX and commemorates 1,803 servicemen who died in the Normandy Campaign and have no known graves.

Copyright © Tom Morgan, August, 1996.

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