Behind the Scenes at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
This is the Living History podcast, broadcasting live across the airwaves. CLICK HERE to listen to this podcast.
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and coming to you from just outside Arras in France and I’m very excited about this interview today because we’re speaking with Victoria Wallace, who is the Director General of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It’s going to be, I’m sure, an absolutely fascinating discussion. Victoria, thank you so much for joining us.
Victoria: Thank you for having me. It’s lovely. It’s great to be here this morning.
Mat: We’re sitting in what is an absolutely remarkable place. This is the brand new Commonwealth War Graves experience. Why don’t you begin, tell us where we’re sitting and the importance of this new place that just opened.
Victoria: Well, we’re sitting in what used to be the Gentiles for our workshops here at our headquarters just outside of Burbanks in Northern France. For years this has been our workshop where we do all the headstone production, where our craftsman makes all the things that just tend to the cemeteries. So it’s where they bring the lawnmowers for repair. It’s where they fix a broken sword of honor. It’s a fantastic place, full of activity. And for years people had been coming quietly to have a look, but we’d never opened it to the public. And then back just before the anniversary, the hundredth anniversary of The Battle of the Somme, we brought the commissioners over to France to have a look at what we were doing. And we were talking about how we better engage the public with what we do because a wonderful piece in the 1960’s, there’s a fantastic lecture by the then head of Horticulture.
And he said, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a marvelous thing, but not enough people know about it. And you know, still it was absolutely true 50 years later. So we were working on a whole strategy built around how we told people the story of the War Graves Commission and they said, well, why don’t we open a visitorâs center here? Let’s make this public. So thanks to the British government who came up with a bit of a grant, and to the Commonwealth member governments who enabled us then to redesign the rest of the sites so that we could move some of the big machinery to slightly different places and just tidy ourselves up actually? We now have this amazing center where groups can come, visitors to the battlefields can come and watch our guys at work and where we tell the story of what we do.
Mat: It’s a really wonderful place that you’ve got here. I came through last week with a tour group. It was really remarkable to see how people were engaging with the story of Commonwealth War Graves. We’re going to dig into it; there’s so much to talk about. Before we get started, why don’t you just give us the quick overview of the origins of the Commonwealth War Graves, and how we got to this point because it’s a remarkable story and one that I think people know a little bit about but certainly don’t understand the complexities, the wonderful history of the institution.
Victoria: Back in 1917, you were at the darkest stage, probably of the First World War. They weren’t to know it would all be over the following year, and for the previous three years an amazing guy called Fabian Weir was a journalist, had been working with the British Red Cross and with the British Armed Forces and realized there was a huge problem. Because of the nature of the fighting and backwards and forwards over the same terrain, many of the burial places being set up after one battle with them being obliterated in the next range of fighting. So those markers, the wooden crosses were being lost. And so he set up something called the Graves Registration Unit, and it was the first time a force had decided to commemorate each person individually. And so Weir got together a dream team of architects and artists and designers and writers, you know when your literary advisor is Rudyard Kipling, you’re in the right direction, aren’t you?
So they had some of the best architects of the 20th century to put their minds to how the men and women of the Commonwealth should be remembered by the then-Empire. So the Imperial War Graves Commission received its Royal Charter from the King in May 1917, and it’s been operating ever since, ensuring that every man and woman is commemorated appropriately by name. If there’s a grave to be found, that that grave is marked. If there’s not, their name is on the Memorial wall somewhere. That now seems complete common sense, but Memorial walls were new.
Mat: The thing that always strikes me about the early days of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the work that they were doing is there was an incredible amount of foresight there. It’s like they were able to project a hundred years in the future and know what was going to be important to us, because this concept of remembering each man by name and if he didn’t have a grave putting him on a Memorial, that was incredibly far-sighted at the time. At the time, nations usually dealt with their war dead by digging a big hole and throwing them all in and putting up a Memorial saying, here’s 200 soldiers from the war. This idea that every man deserves to be remembered, which has been obviously the cornerstone of the work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does, incredibly farsighted a hundred years ago.
Victoria: The Kenyon report, which came out in 1917 was â¦ Frank Kenyon was the director of the British Museum and so he put some really good minds to work on this, and they were looking at what Empire meant. They had a real vision of each part of the Empire beginning to become independent, beginning have their own voice. So they would determine that it didn’t matter where these people came from or what their status in life was, and there was obviously total inequality in life at the time, both because of class, rank and economic status, not to mention race and religion and all of those things. And they said, actually none of that should matter. These guys all fought alongside each other. And our Royal Charters got some wonderful language in it about this being all about, not just about burial, but actually about tending to improve the common bonds of sacrifice that were made, the common bonds of citizenship of this great Empire across the world. Empires are very unfashionable now, but this was very much a thought of bringing all men to be honoured in the same way for the sacrifice they’d made here in the battlefield.
Mat: Why do you think they made those decisions? Because this was decades before any sort of class equality or even before people even thought that was something to worry about. Why did they, at this time, see the First World War as this important opportunity to demonstrate unity and equality in the way that they did?
Victoria: I think there was rising pressure around the world anyway for recognition of individual nations. I think there was a sense at last, after an awfully long time that slavery had gone in the previous century, but still in the 1890s the British Navy is fighting slavery in East Africa. There was a recognition that each person’s contribution meant something. Why these guys did it? I really don’t know, but the interesting thing is that political masters could see the value of that. Suddenly universal suffrage is just around the corner. Women are getting the vote too and every man is being treated. I suppose you had the rise of the labour movements coming through. So there was a whole global context of people beginning to feel a greater equality than they had perhaps ever enjoyed before.
Mat: And I assume the scale of the war as well would have paid to that. By 1917 when they were making these decisions that they had seen death on a scale that was unimaginable up until that point. And I’m sure that had a bearing on it as well.
Victoria: Certainly. I mean, the pressure from the UK particularly to repatriate throughout the war was enormously strong. And you can imagine the devastating impact of seeing hundreds of thousands of corpses being returned to the UK, plus the inability to return a huge number of people whose graves are still not found. We have got 200,000 still missing. So realistically, politically, something needed to be done to show that every man’s life had been honoured if you were going to keep the war efforts continuing to move forwards.
Mat: How did you come to this role in Commonwealth War Graves? Were you someone who was always obsessed with war graves and this was finally your dream job?
Victoria: Good Lord. Not at all. The one exam I failed in my life was my history O’ Level, which is kind of embarrassing. No, I started off life in the diplomatic service in the UK and then I ended up via a very weird route ending up in the heritage business. So I’d been running a castle for 10 years, which was fantastic fun and really interesting and I got really enthusiastic and interested in how you tell stories about history, particularly to those who are not the guys who understand where the 14th Division went and the 5th Brigade turned left behind that tree. For some people, they just don’t get that. But it’s about human stories to me.
And the other great passion I have is for stonework. If you look after 11th century castle, very rapidly you discover how to restore stone, and that was one of the great challenges now that the commission face a hundred years in. We’ve got these structures all around the world. We’re in 150+ countries and territories in 23,000 sites. Now they’re all aging at the same time, and so there’s a fantastic conservation effort that’s needed to ensure that these genuinely will be there in a hundred yearsâ time and another hundred yearsâ time, as Churchill imagined when he first talked in the debate about how the war graves would impact in the future.
Mat: Since your time at War Graves, I believe you’ve been here five years now; you’ve overseen a lot of changes and I think Commonwealth War Graves is an evolving institution perhaps now more than at any stage in its existence. Hopefully we’re not going to see a requirement for the same work that it’s had to do in the past. I think we all hope and pray that we’ll never see the scale of suffering we saw in the First and Second World War so that the need to go out and build hundreds of new cemeteries. Hopefully that won’t be on the horizon anymore. How did you view, particularly those early days when you first came to the Commonwealth War Graves, what was your vision and how has that journey been to bring that to fruition?
Victoria: I can’t take credit for it just on my own. There is a whole Commission who I work for and I think it was really interesting in that it wasn’t a fight in any way to change something. There was just this growing understanding that there’s this fantastic organization which has been quietly doing all this stuff for a long time, but it has not completely moved out of building mode. They were still thinking about replacing stuff because that’s what they’d done from the very beginning, and that the skills have been passed on them how to remake something. I think perhaps what I brought was an understanding that the stuff itself – the headstones, the walls – they have a heritage value. They are important because they have been there for a hundred years, so they don’t look as if they’re brand new. That doesn’t actually matter very much because they are the stones where that guy’s mom went in the 1920s on a first Thomas Cook travel up to Ypres and may have put her hand on that stone.
If we take that away and just replace it with a nice crispy new one, it doesn’t have the same significance anymore. I think the Commissioners spent a lot of time thinking around their 100th birthday, what was the job of the Commission? Should we just carry on doing the same thing? And we had a really interesting conversation with our member governments and what came back from everyone was don’t stop doing what you’re doing. What you’re doing is great and we want to continue to support that into the future.
But it’s actually time to think more about the commemorative elements of it because of course with the passing of the war generations, both now for the First World War, they’re all gone. There’s almost nobody left who remembers any of them. And it’s just the same now with the Second World War veterans. Weâre seeing the very last few still there, which are fantastic but the stories, the personal stories are being lost. And we stand there in November and we stand there on Anzac Day and we say we will remember them, but it’s bloody difficult to remember somebody you never met. So our job actually now is to tell the stories of these guys so they’re not just stone headstones. They are people who lived lives who had an impact on the world other, than just being dead.
Mat: It hasn’t been without controversy the new directions the CWGC is going in, and I think it’s the case whenever there’s tradition and obviously there are huge traditions associated with Commonwealth War Graves. How do you balance that? How do you balance the need for those established traditions to be maintained and the new generations that need to be taught about the war? The younger people who have no personal experience of war, and the future of this history and the recounting of these important stories.
Victoria: I think the really important thing is we explain what we’re doing and that we tell people the reason that those headstones are no longer as shiny white as you might remember them 10 years ago, is that we’re not just going out and replacing 25,000 headstones every year. The second one gets a chip or a crack. We’re restoring them. We’re ensuring that those things actually continue and they last because a piece of stone should last a really long time. So we’re re-engraving them to make sure that the lettering is still crisp. That’s quite hard for people who have been conditioned by us over the last 30 years because we’d been out there with agrichemicals clearing off the mold and making sure that they’re bright and shiny. That actually doesn’t mean that we honor them less because the headstones are a bit grayer, but actually do we really want to be pouring toxic chemicals onto the head of our war dead?
So things evolve, things change and I think there’s a conversation that has to be had around all of these changes. One of the things that amuses me most, I didn’t laugh at it, but it’s this fantastic tension is I’ll get a letter, I’ll get two letters in the day in the mailbag. One would say how fantastic it was to go to Tyne Cot. Biggest cemetery we have of course, just outside of Ypres and there are thousands of children who go every day with tour buses and how brilliant it was to see them engaging with our young interns and talking about what’s going on. And then a letter from somebody saying, I went to Tyne Cot. It was terrible. It was full of young people. It was so noisy. They were there. They were climbing on things. They were running around. We need quiet and respect, and I think there’s a real balance we have to try and strike.
But to me, the second we say to the younger generations, no, don’t walk, don’t come, don’t engage, don’t look at what’s going on here, you turn them all off. Now there will be some who go, who sit, who are not interested, not engaged, but if on every coach, there’s one or two kids who get the bug, who understand what they’re seeing, that’s your future secured in terms of remembrance.
Mat: It’s a really important point that you make because the thing that always strikes me about these cemeteries when I visit them and when I take people there and talk to them, I think the really important thing we should remember is they weren’t built for us. They didn’t build these cemeteries to say because in 100 years it’s going to be important we tell their stories. They built these cemeteries for the families of the men that lie in them, and there’s been a real change. Thankfully there’s been a change now because we simply don’t have the same numbers of war dead that we had before. Do you as the Commonwealth War Graves, do you see that? Do you see that transition? Do you walk through a cemetery and see a park bench that was once so that families could sit there and gaze out and again, how do we remain relevant? How does that evolution occur from the War Graves prospective?
Victoria: I think that’s the really important thing about telling the individual stories of the people who are there so that there is that connection, because if you walk around the cemetery without knowing anything about the people there, it’s a fairly pointless exercise. You may as well be in a park. And so we have to find that really difficult balance between finding ways of telling stories, because everyone says, Oh wouldn’t it be great here if you had an app and everybody could read on their phones and they could see, they could stand there, and yet actually when you ask visitors, would you like us to be providing more app-based technology so you could read about it on your phones while you walk around. It’s really interesting how many people say, I don’t really want to use my phone here. I want to think, I want to feel. So the thing that people want most is orientation. They want to understand what it is they’re seeing. They want to be pointed to a few stories, and then they want to know how they can go away and find out more.
And that to me is the job of our website, and all of the whole amazing amount of historical research that is now out there on the web. It’s all accessible. And so I see us as being a really important set of signposts to all of this information that is there, so that your visit to the cemetery doesn’t just begin and end when you walk through the door. It begins when you’re sitting on your sofa at home thinking about a trip to the war graves or thinking about a relative you’ve discovered through your genealogy, and you’re then able to find out more about them before you go. And then when you go back to find out more about other places, and actually that’s what this Center is aimed at as well. Great that people walk around and come and see our guys at work, but also when they come out, there’s all the audio visual stuff, which then shows them where they can go next.
Mat: Well tell us a little bit more about this Center because it sums up better than just about any way what you’re talking about, this coming together of old and new. Because I think it’s really fascinating that there’s nothing more traditional and old school than carving stone and gardening and shaping wood. These are primal activities that humans have been doing for millennia, and that’s how the Commonwealth War Graves were established. Wonderful gardeners, building beautiful cemeteries and maintaining headstones. Now we’ve got this wonderful Center, the Commonwealth War Graves Experience and we now see behind the scenes. We can see through wonderful windows, we can see into the workshops where they’re carving headstones and repairing benches and maintaining lawn mowers. Just tell me about, I think I should say everyone should come. It’s fantastic and it’s right in the heart of the battlefields and a really great place. Tell me about what you’re trying to achieve at this Center.
Victoria: What we wanted to communicate was, first of all, about our teams. We’ve got 1,400 people worldwide who do this stuff, who care for them. It’s not actually the local authorities are doing them. If you want to break the heart of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission member of staff, say to them âoh don’t the French look after their cemetery so wellâ because that was really important, but actually it is your governments that are doing this. That’s really important to know and then to come through and understand the ethos of it, understand that it’s this traditional craftsmanship, these beautiful skills, but done with really modern machinery. So there were always headstones from the very beginning. They set up headstone carving machinery quite early on in the life of the Commission, but you can also see a guy re-engraving by hand using now modern drills, but nevertheless he’s sitting in the same way that the guy would have done in 1917 and I think that’s really powerful.
And then you look at the workmanship in the wood in the carpentry workshop and you see these beautiful joints. They hardly ever use nails or glue. It’s all about really classic craftsmanship. That’s wonderful to see to start off with. That sets the tone really well. But one of the most imposing bits I think of the experience is the recovery and reburial unit, and the tone changes a little bit in there as we explain that actually this job carries on. It’s a perpetual mission and we are still recovering bodies from the battlefields, about one a week.
Mat: Well, and more and more.
Victoria: That’s right.
Mat: As more development occurs and as techniques get more sophisticated for building and construction, we’re uncovering at an increasing rate, aren’t we?
Victoria: That’s exactly right.
Mat: There was a bit of a time where it dipped and we are not finding that many bodies, but now it’s extraordinary the amounts that are being uncovered.
Victoria: I think it’s a combination, both of public awareness and actually knowing that we will come and recover them quickly, that if a body is recovered, it is not going to mean that your building site has to close down for six weeks. Our guys will come in and collect the person within a day, but they are using proper forensic techniques and recovering the artefact that surrounds the person, because that’s the key to the identity. So our little unit here tells the story of….weâve got about 200 bodies in there at the moment, all of them are waiting identification from the member governments. They’re going out throughout the summer and as we come into autumn next week, I’m going up to the reburials the Hill 80 recoveries.
So we’ve got UK recoveries and we’ve got German recoveries, and so it’s a continuing mission, which is so interesting and I think it’s a real tribute to the member governments as well because they treat each one of those people who are recovered as if they’re a casualty from today, and so they work really hard to identify next of kin, to find out who these guys were, and it’s really gratifying. There’s something very special when somebody is recovered and you’re able to give him an identity and to bury him in the presence of family members after 105 years.
Mat: You mentioned German recoveries just almost as an aside. Do you do much work with your colleagues in Germany? Because I know they have a much tougher mission than we do in the Commonwealth just because of the way they were set up with War Graves, etcetera. Do you do a lot of work with the Germans?
Victoria: Little bit. Not a huge amount. We operate in very different ways. The German cemeteries tend to be much bigger. They’re run by volunteers, whereas we are a much more professionally run organization. Just the scale of it is rather different. We have German burials in our cemeteries and so out of the headstone production unit here, you’ll see headstones being re-carved and names and things being changed. Recently we discovered the date of one of them who died up in Orkney during the scuttling. That date was wrong because actually he was a murder victim. He wasn’t a victim of the scuttling. A fantastic story and local historians found the evidence. They produced it for us. We went to the VDK – that’s the German equivalent of us – and said to them, look, we think this is right. Do you mind if we change the number? And they said thatâs great. So in time for his centenary, there he was commemorated properly by name with his correct date of death. So yeah, we work in that way. My colleagues actually were in Berlin earlier this week to celebrate the VDKâs 100th anniversary.
Mat: The future of Commonwealth War Graves, there’s really two parts I’m fascinated with. Let’s begin as an organization, how do you think Commonwealth War Graves is going to continue to evolve? Where in another 10, 20, 50 years? What is the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission going to look like compared to now?
Victoria: I think a lot of that will depend on the public’s attitude to war. We know the toughest times for the War Graves Commission have been historically about 20 years or so after the conflicts. In the 60s and 70s when Vietnam was going on, when war suddenly became really something that people were very uncomfortable talking about. And I grew up in the 70s and 80s when people used to talk about going on parade on Remembrance Sundays being the glorification of war. Now public sympathy is completely in the opposite direction. We’ve got this fantastic commemoration resurgence, more people than ever visiting the battlefields, so of course governments will keep supporting it. There are real challenges. Climate change is a massive issue for us. We are losing cemeteries to coastal erosion, to urban creep so there are lots of challenges, but I would be surprised if the Commission didn’t look pretty much the same in 20, 30 years. Beyond that, it’s really difficult to say, but it does all hang on the political need for governments to continue to mark such a massive loss.
Mat: The fascinating aspect of this to me is that there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cemeteries in France alone, for example. It is a hundred years down the track. If we look at previous conflicts, Waterloo for example, Napoleonic Wars, they are interesting chapters of history, but I’m not so sure that if we had, for example, in the UK, if we had hundreds and hundreds of cemeteries to French people from Waterloo, these things move on. Do you feel that is going to occur with the First World War, with the Second World War? Are we going to reach a time, maybe another century down the road where French people say, look, there’s just too many of these cemeteries? There’s no one left anymore to remember them, or even knows anybody remembers them and it’s impossible to answer, but what’s your feeling? Will this stay in perpetuity? Is this something that will carry on for another 100, 200 years?
Victoria: I think in places like France, yes probably and Belgium, because it’s become so much part of their cultural heritage. It’s an extraordinary story on the landscape, yet it’s not actually taking up huge economically viable spaces. They’re astonishing in this part of France. You look around and they’re littered across the landscape, but they’re not actually really stopping anybody from doing anything significant. There’ll be some we lose. There will be some when actually 200 years on and the motor way needs to go through the middle of the one, are we likely to exhume and move them somewhere else? Probably not. In another 100 yearsâ time, it will be shrug shoulders. Never mind. We have another 22,999 sites, so we will lose places. I think the bigger challenges are in places where we perhaps don’t reach as often, where war graves exist in municipal cemeteries and in African towns.
I’ve spent a lot of time in East Africa when I was in the Foreign Service, and many of the cemeteries there where we have people buried are in such a state of decay. Even in the UK, cemeteries are disappearing all the time in the middle of city centers because nobody is caring for the whole cemetery. Now our guys go in and out once every couple of months to keep an eye on the War Grave there, and you hope that that won’t get lost, but those I think are the ones which are likely to disappear faster than the classic war cemeteries you see in key locations.
Tourism I think will still beâ¦.I can’t imagine a world in which tourism doesn’t exist. In 200 yearsâ time, maybe it’s going to be too difficult to fly anywhere so people won’t be making these acts of pilgrimage to places like Gallipoli or whatever, but then the hugest numbers of people who are visiting the Gallipoli battlefields are Turkish. So I think in most places these cemeteries do have a place in the hearts of the people who live in those countries as well so they should endure.
Mat: I think the interesting thing about that, I think you’re right in everything that you say. The fascinating thing for me is that remembrance now when it comes to war cemeteries is now a type of collective remembrance. It’s about what these men represent rather than what it has been. Previously it was about the individuals. it was about families going and seeing their son and perhaps his comrades as well. Now it’s more of a collective remembrance that these – as an Australian, I take Australians to these cemeteries and they want to find the Australian graves, and I suppose that’s where it will get difficult in the future because a collective remembrance could be a couple of hundred graves. It doesn’t have to be a couple of thousand and I’m sure attitudes will change. If remembrance continues to be collective and we want these to be representative of a period of history or a contribution from a country, people will say, well, we don’t need 500 or 600 or 700 cemeteries to do that. We can do that with just a couple.
Victoria: Yeah, and I completely get that and that would have been an entirely legitimate response to how are we going to carry on. It was always possible that the member governments could have really surprised us and say, you know, we don’t really need 23,000 sites. Let’s just sort of pull them all into one big place. It’ll take a bit of time, but mostly where the remains are now have disappeared. That’s okay. We can just remember them on a wall. But can you imagine the outcry of that happening now? I don’t think anyone’s ready for that to happen yet. And so for the time being, we are still where we are and I very much hope that will endure into the future.
Mat: I agree and I’m very hopeful that will be the case, because I think it is wonderful how more and more people are engaging with this history as time goes on. Just finally, Victoria, why is all this important? Why does it matter? Why should we remember and visit these cemeteries? Why a century after the First World War and 75 years after the Second World War, why does any of this matter?
Victoria: If you look at what’s happening around the world today with more and more intolerance, the rise of extremism, I think it is extraordinary salutary to have places which are constant reminders of the desperate cost of what happens when politics goes horribly wrong and the First World War, if nothing else, was just a terrible, terrible clash of politics and technology. And if we don’t remember that, it will be so easy to make the same mistakes again. To me these are â¦ and I think George V said, there was no more potent symbol of peace than these lines, these serried ranks of headstones, and I think that’s exactly how I feel about it.
When you look at them, you are reminded of a time in history when the unthinkable happened. It was quite bonkers actually that so many people should have been allowed to die in that way, and so to have constant reminders of that in our communities around the world as well as the actual cemeteries with the bodies there, that I think is extraordinarily important.
Mat: Well, thank you so much for your time. It’s such an important work that you do. I’m sure I speak on behalf of all our listeners to say thank you for your efforts to keep this memory alive, and it’s been wonderful to hear your insights into the important work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Thank you so much.
Victoria: It’s a privilege and a pleasure. Thank you Mat.
Mat: I’m talking now to Steve Arnold, who is the horticultural manager here at the Commonwealth War Graves but also has a very important role in the recovery of remains. Steve, thank you very much for joining us.
Steve: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Mat: So tell me about this work because obviously as time goes on and development occurs and there’s more digging on the battlefields, there seems to be more and more remains that are being recovered. What does your work involve with the recovery of remains?
Steve: There are more and more. I get that question quite often. So the last few years, we have really, really gone up in the number of recoveries and places like lawns are expanding for shopping and a new hospital site, and that’s producing lots of recoveries because they have to de-mine the fields before they can start building, and during the de-mining operations, they tend to find remains, then they call us and we go in and recover them.
Mat: What’s the process when you get that call that remains have been found? I assume that firstly they have to establish it’s not a civilian that’s been murdered more recently.
Steve: Yeah. Anytime they’ll have to call us or the police. If they know us, they’ll often call us first and then we’ll establish whether it’s a soldier or not, and then we’ll call the police or it’s the other way around. So sometimes the police go first. If it’s a single case, a single recovery; they’ll often call the police who will then call us. If it’s a multiple reoccurring recovery over in the same site, they’ll just call us again and then we’ll just carry on like that.
Mat: What’s the process once you receive that call and when you head out to the site?
Steve: Well we have a system in place where we just drop whatever it is we we’re doing and we just go out, so we generally end up there within the hour, depending on where it is. But generally it’s an hour and all our kits are ready to go, those multiple members of the team. So generally one of my colleagues, Paul Bird, he’s the principal recovery officer, but I then stand in quite a few times and then there’s one or two officers which we can count on in case, just if we’re not available for some reason or in some cases multiple recoveries in one day, which can happen as well. But the gear is ready, the van is ready to go at all times, so there’s no preparation work needed. Just us jump in the van and off we go so we can make it really quick, which often surprises them.
Mat: Commonwealth War Graves is not responsible for identification of the bodies, but the work you do is instrumental in assisting a potential identification, isn’t it?
Steve: Our work, what we do is provide an exact location where the remains were recovered, plus ensuring that all the artefacts, everything is brought back and photographed correctly. That’s done in France. We start a report, which is quite a big report when it’s completed, but we start that report with the location – GPS location, coordinates, everything. We have colleagues back at our head office in Maidenhead who then do historical research on the area. So they will look at the maps at the time, look at the historical documents, archives, and look at remains that were recovered in that exact location a hundred years ago by the then-Imperial War Graves Commission. So they’ll be able to narrow it down to a good list of possible candidates and sometimes even a candidate, without us having found anything with the name on it. But then sometimes we do find some soldier has an amulet made with his name on it and makes it easy for us.
Mat: Have you seen a change in your time at War Graves in the care with which remains are exhumed, with the dedication to identifying them? Has that evolved over time?
Steve: It certainly has. Not for us at the War Grave Commission, we’ve always treated that the same way, but I think before people wouldn’t always call if they found remains. I know that’s the case that farmers sometimes or builders wouldn’t call us or the police if they found remains. They knew it was a soldier from First or Second World War but they always have this in their mind that we would stop their work and they wouldn’t be able to continue the building for several days or more. So since we’ve started this team now, that’s why we go out really quickly and we actually finish the work in one day. So word has got around and people are contacting us now because they know they can carry on working, even if it’s a building site. Weâll do our work, weâll cordon off the area where we want to work. They’ll stay out of that and they can carry on working.
Mat: We are in an area that was very heavily involved in fighting in the First World War. A fundamental question, how many potential bodies are out there in the fields? Is there any way of knowing how many bodies could possibly still be out there in the fields?
Steve: There is a way and it’s never going to be exact, but if you look at the number of missing soldiers and I’m talking for France. If you looked at the number of missing soldiers on our memorials and then take off the number of unknown because we have a number of unknown graves in our cemeteries in France. It works out at about a hundred and ten thousand, a hundred and twenty thousand soldiers that are still missing.
Mat: Just from British and Commonwealth?
Steve: Just from British and Commonwealth, and when you think about it, the Germans and French probably have more missing than that.
Mat: That means there must be a lot of bodies being uncovered. How common is it to uncover a body on the battlefields?
Steve: If you were to do a proper archaeological dig, you would probably find quite a few. But it’s not always as easy as that. There’s bodies everywhere.
Mat: So how often would you get a phone call to come out and recover some of the remains?
Steve: And I think this year we’ve had 29 call outs. That’s just this year and this is September.
Mat: Okay, so you’re getting a couple a month?
Steve: Oh yes. And sometimes it goes quiet. I mean, last two weeks there were no calls and two weeks before that, I think I was out for three or four and then it goes quiet. It dies down for a bit. You know, just one of those things.
Mat: Do you know what percentage of these remains is eventually being identified?
Steve: When it comes to British, probably 10%, maybe a bit more Australian, Canadians, because the records, the Australian, the Canadian war records weren’t destroyed during the Second World War. Ours were destroyed during the Second World War. So it’s sometimes difficult to find any anything in any archives whereas for the Australian and the Canadians it’s much easier. It’s still difficult. It’s still a difficult job, but there’s a possibility of doing it. So they will have quite a good rate of identification. Iâd probably say eight to nine out of ten will be identified, whereas for the British people, one or two out of ten, I would imagine.
Mat: The numbers involved would also have an effect on that too because there were so many British soldiers in so many sectors and whereas the Australians and Canadians were always in very specific areas.
Steve: Yes, exactly. When you think about it the whole budget for the War Grave Commission is 78% funded by the British government. That means 78% of the casualties buried in our cemeteries are Brits. So that shows you there are quite a few more. If I find a set of remains somewhere, he might be one of 400 who are missing. So you just simply can’t go and DNA test 400. You would need to find 400 families first, then DNA test all of them. Itâs not possible.
Mat: What’s the most special moment for you in this whole process of uncovering remains? What’s the moment that stayed with you the most?
Steve: Obviously when you’re out there in the field and you’re recovering someone, what I always think of is his family at the time. They were often young people. There would have been parents somewhere that never knew where their son was. They knew he died, but they didn’t know where, or they would have probably had an idea roughly where, and suddenly here I am, Steve Arnold or any of my colleagues, 103 years later uncovering someone’s son or someone’s husband. They didn’t know, they never knew.
Mat: Well, it’s really important work. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about it.
Steve: My pleasure.
Mat: I’m here with Camille and we’re in the workshop now at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Camille is the headstone production manager. Camille, thank you for joining us. You’re going to show us around and the process of manufacturing headstones, aren’t you?
Camille: Exactly. I’m going to show you and explain to you everything about engraving a headstone for the Commonwealth.
Mat: So how does it begin? We’re standing in front of blank headstones here. What’s the first step in the process?
Camille: The first step is we go into the quarries in Italy and in England to make sure that the blank headstones are perfect, and then a transport company delivers them here in Beaurains in France. And then we place the headstone on the machine. We have our head office in England, they are sending us all the different files and each file corresponds to a soldier. We just have a quick manipulation to do on the machine to center everything and do a quick laser acquisition to determine the surface of the stone. And then we just press a button and we engrave all the information.
Mat: So it’s really quite amazing technology because traditionally this has all been done by hand with engraving but now it’s all these automatic laser machines.
Steve: It was done by hand a hundred years ago. We switched maybe 20 years ago to those CNC machines. Fully computerized.
Mat: And what sort of stone are you using when you have to replace headstones these days?
Camille: It depends where the cemetery is located and how it was designed in the past. Mainly we use Portland stone, which is coming from the UK. But if itâs granite at the origin then we need to change and buy granite.
Mat: And it’s one of the most remarkable things about Commonwealth War Graves across the world is just the huge variety of stone that is used, isn’t it?
Camille: We do have approximately 40 different types of stone in stock.
Mat: And the thing that I was most surprised about when I came here is just outside, there are slabs and slabs of headstones ready to be sent to cemeteries all around the world. I didn’t realize that you do all the carving here and all the work on all the headstones here in France for Commonwealth cemeteries across the globe, don’t you?
Camille: Yeah. Everything is done here. 153 countries. We engrave and then we deal with the transport companies and the embassies as well, because sometimes it’s quite difficult to ship to some countries like Iraq, or stuff like that.
Mat: I can imagine. Can you show me one of these machines and the process of an engraving?
Camille: Yes. Sure. We can do it now.
Mat: So just to describe to everyone what we’re seeing here, this is actually an Australian headstone that’s being engraved. It’s remarkably quiet. I thought it would be much louder than it is.
Camille: Yes, it is quiet. It’s also quiet because it’s soft stone. The Portland is really easy to engrave and if we engrave granite for example, it’s harder, so it makes much more noise.
Mat: I’m looking at a computer screen and it’s a casualty I can see from 1918, an Australia. So I’m just watching. So it’s remarkable how automatic this all is, that the machine is just operating on its own. I assume it’s been guided by lasers.
Camille: Yes, we do have a laser and we use the laser at the beginning of the process to determine, as I said, the surface of the stone so that we can adjust the engraving depths. And then we have an engraving tool, which is carving the stone.
Mat: What was the work you were doing before you came and worked for Commonwealth War Graves? Because this must be a very unusual type of stonework to be working on headstones for Commonwealth cemeteries.
Camille: Yes, it is. And to be honest with you, it’s my first job. I studied languages at school and when I arrived here for training, I stayed two months and they offered me a job. So I said, yeah, it’s a really interesting job, really interesting company and well it’s a pleasure to work at the Commission.
Mat: We’re standing in front of an Australian headstone as it is made. Do you feel a connection to this history? Do you feel a connection to the people that you’re engraving on these headstones?
Camille: Yes. It’s always emotional to engrave a headstone and to think about it because it’s a name, it’s somebody who fought for us during those two Wars. And it’s always emotional and sometimes you can also make a relation because you can see sometimes your name on the stone as well.
Mat: And I see here, I can read the inscription from the family – a mother’s son who lived and died for others. That must be very emotional when you read a century later, the words of their families. Like to me, I’m watching these letters appear in the stone. These are words from a century ago. It’s almost like ghostly writing appearing on the headstone.
Camille: Exactly. And as you said, the family inscriptions, the personal inscription, it’s really important and really emotional to see them on the stone here.
Mat: Camille, thank you very much for taking the time. It’s been very special.
Camille: Thank you to you.
Mat: So that’s the Commonwealth War Graves Experience outside Arras in France, right in the heart of the battlefields. I strongly recommend if you’re coming to the battlefields of the Western Front, you come here. It will give you an incredible insight into this vitally important work remembering these soldiers who were killed, not just in the First World War, but in Wars throughout the century. So come to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Experience.