The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Experience in Arras is where a group of extraordinary men and women work to honour and maintain the cemeteries and memorials of the Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in WWI and WWII. Based in France they operate on a global basis and a visit to their workshops at the CWCG experience makes for a poignant and fascinating visit.
This is an important stop on the memorial route, and essential for those visiting the battlefields of the Western Front.
History of the CWGC
A couple of miles from the historic city centre of Arras, the CWGC has had workshops in the small town of Beaurains since the early 1980s. In June 2019, the CWGC Experience opened up the workshops so that visitors can view the ongoing work that takes place here.
Because these are real people with jobs, it’s only open when they’re working – week days and some special days like heritage days, but not weekends or national holidays.
The CWGC was established in 1917 while WWI was still being fought. Their work was only completed in 1938, just a year later, WWII began. So far, the CWGC has established 2,500 war cemeteries, memorials and plots to commemorate those with no known grave. More than a million burials are marked at military and civil sites. They operate in more than 150 countries and territories and at 23,000 locations. More than 100 years later, their work still remains incredibly important.
What to see at the CWGC experience
Your visit starts with a short film which explains the history and work of the CWGC. There’s a small but poignant museum. But it’s the workshops that hold your attention. It’s instantly clear that those who work here are not doing any ordinary job. They take their responsibilities seriously and they give of themselves with their unique work, it’s humbling to witness their dedication.
Around a central courtyard, you can visit a series of workshops with glass fronts. Here gravestones are produced for CWGC cemeteries around the world – around 4000 a year. Some are replacements for gravestones that have been damaged or are too worn out to mend. Some are brand new: “On average we find the remains of 50 casualties a year, sometimes more” says Audrey Chaix, Head of Tourism and Marketing WEA. “We make new headstones here and when the soldiers are finally laid to rest, it is with full honours. Their former regiments attend, and for families it is a very emotional event”.
Guardians of memory
In the workshop, great lumps of Portland stone from England await transformation into gravestones to be engraved with the soldiers regiment. Astonishingly there are more than 1000 different regimental badges for the UK and Ireland alone. You can watch as the masons work on the cutting and engraving process. It’s a sobering thought to know that more than 1 million have been produced here since 1917.
Stones are checked every five years. “They used to be replaced if there was wear and tear or damage” says Audrey “but these days we try to mend them first”.
If you get a chance to chat to the masons they will tell you: “this is much more than just a name carved in stone”.
Other workshops include the forge where the gates are made for cemeteries, as well as metal ornaments such as swords, chain and shells. The memorial registry books and the cases in which they are kept are also made here. The windows, wooden gates, benches etc are made in the joinery shop to traditional methods, there’s no use of glue or nails. There’s a lawnmower repair shop that’s constantly busy maintaining the mowers used in France – more than 2000 of them. Some of them are tailor made to ensure the grass is kept in pristine condition.
In the sign workshop, Michel Grare works alone, creating the metal signs for the cemeteries and directions.
Everything is made to imperial measurements and often made to traditional methods. It’s not unusual for skills to be passed down the generations within families. “We have 1300 staff” says Audrey “and it’s not just any job, the average length of employment here is 22 years”.
The gardeners of the CWGC
The CWGC has gardeners all around the world. In France there are 320 making sure every one of the cemeteries is well maintained and treated with respect. One of thegardeners, William Moody, started the job at the age of 17 and has been there for 52 years. His dad was a CWGC gardener, and his grandfather too, as are his son, brother and nephew. Those who work for the CWGC take their responsibility seriously, this is not just a job. Speak to them and you will hear phrases like “we owe them our freedom”. They will tell you what an honour it is to look after these “precious places”. When the CWGC first started in operation “many of the old soldiers used to carry out the work” says Audrey “they wanted to stay near their lost friends.”
The CWGC today
The work of the CWGC is never done. Records are updated daily as more details about soldiers lost and found are discovered. There are two trained officers based here and they are constantly researching. When a call comes in to notify them that remains have been found, often from farmers working in their fields or builders at a construction site, Paul Bird and Steve Arnold hurry to the site. They transport remains to the CWGC mortuary, so as to free the farmers and builders to go back to work immediately. Then the work begins to find out who the soldier was, locate his family and report to the government.
Sometimes there is a name tag or details that help identify the soldier. Some cases take years. Some are never known. Finding family, testing DNA, it’s part forensics and part detective work and not easy. “They have a success rate of 10-18%, the same as it was in 1919” says Audrey. If they are able to make an identification then the remains are buried in a cemetery with former comrades. Their former regiment will be in attendance to honour them. When the service is over the Mayor of the town where they are buried will usually offer the family a “Vin d’honneur”, a glass of wine in memory of their lost relative, at the local town hall. Two hours later, the family will return to the cemetery and find that everything has been completed. The grave is covered over, flowers are planted and everything is in pristine condition – like all the others.
Lest we forget
The work of the CWGC remains as important now as it ever has.
Entry to the CWGC Experience is free but donations in a collection box are welcomed: www.cwgc.org/visit-us/visitor-centres/cwgc-experience
There is also a membership programme, Proceeds go towards a non-profit making charity, the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation which funds education and activities highlighting the work of the CWGC: www.cwgc.org/support-us
The CWGC also has a website which tells the tales of those who work at the CWGC all around the world: www.fourcorners.cwgc.org
Discover more at www.cwgc.org Note: The CWGC Experience is closed from end November until beginning of February.