On Wednesday, April 15th., 1998, the weather in Northern France was very cold and wet. The drivers on the Paris-Lille motorway were driving with headlights on and some of them, at least, had reduced their speed in compliance with French traffic regulations. Driving more slowly, and keeping their distance, in accordance with the signs beside the carriageway, they might have had a little more time to look around them, and take notice, briefly, of the countryside they were passing through.
There are very many war cemeteries in the area around Arras, and some of these are very close to the motorway. One of these is the cemetery just outside Monchy-le-Preux. It isn't a large cemetery, but is instantly recognisable for what it is, standing a few dozen yards from a narrow road, surrounded by farmland. On any other day, there would have been nothing to distinguish it from the many which can be seen from the motorway, but on this day, as drivers passed by, they would have seen the unusual sight of 18 British soldiers, standing by the road in three groups of six, bareheaded in the rain. And the cemetery itself, which is deserted more often than not, was full of people. I was one of them. We were there to pay our respects and attend the burials of three British soldiers who had been killed in 1917 and whose bodies had been lost for 80 years.
Last year, in the Arras area, during an archaeological "dig" undertaken as part of the preparations for road-building, the bodies of 27 British soldiers were found, buried together in a shallow mass grave. From their equipment, it was possible to tell that the men were members of the 13th Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers. They were killed in the phase of the fighting around Arras which began on April 9th, 1917 and lasted until April 14th. The allied attack of this period stretched across a front of 15 miles. The 13th Royal Fusiliers were to attack the village of Monchy-le-Preux and they were successful in this, though their losses were very heavy, and the 27 men whose remains were found by the archaeologists were among the casualties, probably losing their lives on April 12th.
In the cases of 24 of the soldiers, there was no possibility of identification, and their remains were buried in a British cemetery in a quiet ceremony in December, 1996. But the researchers from the Ministry of Defence were certain that they had positively identified two of the soldiers, and had hopes of identifying a third, and so these three bodies were kept in the mortuary at Arras. These were the bodies which were to be buried at Monchy on 15th April, 1998.
Private Frank Harold King, aged 21, came from Hampton, South-West London.
Private George Hamilton Anderson, aged 32, was from Paddington, London.
The third soldier remains unidentified. They say that his remains suggested that he must have been unusually, tall, and that it was hoped that this might provide a clue as to his identity but this was not to be the case.
The day before the burials I had been at Delville Wood, where I joined
in a conversation with a few other visitors, in the tea-room-cum-shop. The
word was was that huge crowds were expected and that the Frence police
would be closing roads for some distance around the cemetery. "Be prepared
for a long walk," I was warned. In the event, I was able to drive
to within a quarter of a mile from the cemetery. Two policemen stood
at the last road junction, turning people away. I parked on the car-park
of one of the new industrial units near the motorway and we walked from there.
It took less than five minutes.
|Inside the walls of the cemetery, a band was playing - The Normandy Band of the Queen's Division - and there were standard-bearers from the Royal British Legion and the Royal Fusiliers Old Comrades Association. There were perhaps a couple of hundred people inside the cemetery limits, probably the greatest number ever to visit the place at any one time. My wife, daughter and I decided not to go into the cemetery, but to walk along outside the wall and watch from there.|
Inside the cemetery we saw three open graves, with two fusiliers standing at attention, one on either side of the prepared burial-sites. Standing nearby was a firing-party of twelve fusiliers and out on the road stood three more groups of six fusiliers. These were the bearing-parties, waiting for the arrival of the coffins. They came from the present-day 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
There was a lull before the ceremony began. this was an opportunity for friends to meet and I had hoped to meet five. There was Hazel Basford and her husband Hedley, from Kent. Hazel is a bell-ringer who researches the lives of Kent bell-ringers who died in the war. We had not met before but had arranged to recognise each other by looking for the hats we had told each other we would be wearing. This arrangement worked very well. I also met (again for the first time) Marco Hoveling and Peter van den Heuvel who had come from Holland. The last person I was looking for was one I knew well, Phil Curme, author of the "Swavesey Chronicles" web-site . (See my LINKS page for a link to his site.) Strangely enough, Phil was the one person I failed to locate that morning.
Sitting in a wheelchair near to the standard bearers was a Great War veteran - himself a Royal Fusilier who had taken part in the same actions as the three of his old comrades who were to be buried today. Next to him, on a bench, sat two children with their mother, one of them a very small girl. I think they were relatives of one of the soldiers, who had come to the cemetery earlier than the rest. But there they sat, the oldest and youngest people there, and they sat without complaint then and throughout the ceremony on that bitterly cold day.
The "official" cars arrived next, bringing the relatives of Ptes. King and Anderson plus the important dignitaries who were attending. These included the Officer Commanding the Royal Fusiliers, high-ranking Officers of the French Army and His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, who is the President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but who was also there in his capacity as Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The Duke took no part in the service, and didn't even stand at the front of the group of dignitaries but, like the rest of us, he had taken the trouble to be there.
In between the band pieces, the drone of the traffic on the motorway reasserted itself and it was while I was looking in that direction that I saw three hearses cross the bridge over the motorway and drive down the narrow, country road towards the cemetery. Each hearse carried a coffin draped with the Union Jack and the three hearses drew up level with the three carrying-parties.
|Then, led by The Reverend Canon D.A.Ruddle, Honorary Chaplain to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the Nord/Pas de Calais Regions, the three coffins were carried into the cemetery and laid over the waiting graves. It was very sombre scene and one which I never thought I would ever see - soldiers burying other soldiers who had died in the Great War, in a War Cemetery. Phil Curme told me later that the weather on the day was just as it had been on the day when the men were killed.|
There were hymns and prayers in the cemetery as the burial ceremony progressed. And there was the band, of course, and hundreds of voices to take up the singing. The carrying parties returned to the graves at the appropriate moment and lowered the coffins into the graves with military precision. They had obviously rehearsed everything down to the last detail. Things were clearly very different from the day when Ptes. King, Anderson, their unknown comrade and the other 24 unidentified men were buried for the first time, in their shallow mass grave. The original burial might, perhaps, have been a rather hurried affair - a battlefield burial undertaken when time and personnel allowed, and with fewer people present.
I don't like crowds and wondered what it must have been like to be there at that first burial.
The burials had lasted for over an hour in very cold, wet weather. As the ceremony ended, the rain began to fall even more heavily, and everyone must have felt that it was time to get to somewhere warm and dry to get out of their soaking clothes. After a few quick farewells to those I knew, my wife, my daughter and I headed back to the car. Our next plan was to drive into Monchy-le-Preux itself so that my daughter could see and photograph the Newfoundland Caribou Memorial there. We reached the village, but the police were still keeping traffic moving, so although we were able to drive past the Caribou, we were not able to stop and look at it. So we went to Arras to find some lunch.
|About an hour later we decided to try visiting Monchy-le-Preux once
more. The rain had stopped by now. The drive to Monchy took us
past the cemetery again and we saw that, although all the crowds had gone,
there was a group of Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardeners at work.
They had already filled in the graves and were replacing the turf over
the burial-sites. They also had three new headstones ready, leaning against
the other headstones in the row of graves which now contained the new
My photograph shows Pte. Anderson's headstone waiting to be positioned by his grave, with the unidentified soldier's headstone next to it. To the right, not visible in my photograph, Pte. King's headstone is being placed into position.
|Finally, the CWGC gardeners positioned the remaining two headstones. They then set about the task of tidying up the general site. Some of the cemetery's grass, the subject of so much of their care and attention, had taken rather a beating under the feet of so many visitors, and the places where most people had walked had become decidedly muddy. But this was not too much of a problem, for the cemetery's hour of fame had passed, and it would now revert to its usual quietness and the grass would recover.|
After all the ceremony, the music, the hymns and speeches, the final act of recognition had been performed for Frank King, George Anderson and their unknown comrade. Many, many people witnessed their coffins being lowered into the ground, but only my family and I saw their graves being marked. Their Name Liveth for Evermore.
Copyright © Tom Morgan, April, 1998.
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