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Rush to repair WWI cemeteries as centennial nears

Apr. 22, 2013 - 09:12AM   |  

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ZONNEBEKE, Belgium — The Tyne Cot cemetery sweeps gently down the slope, the nearly 12,000 headstones aligned in solemn rows of gleaming white. Beyond the walls stretch Flanders Fields, dotted by red farmhouse roofs. For the stage of some of World War I's worst carnage, the scene is tranquility itself — but over the whisper of wind floats a whine like a dentist's drill.

A closer look gives the reason for the jarring sound.

Some gravestones are chipped or cracked. A century of wind and weather has worn the surfaces so the names are hard to read. The stones are no longer perfectly aligned.

So workers are using diamond drill bits to painstakingly re-engrave stones and make the names more legible, the regimental shields more distinct. It's part of a grand effort to get the cemeteries of the British Commonwealth — and Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world — into perfect condition for the crowds expected to visit during World War I centenary commemorations that will take place between 2014 and 2018.

Nearly 100 years ago, these fields were steeped in blood and mud. Burnt trees stood like spent matches against the sky. Horses mired in muck to their haunches strained to haul wagons or guns. Men and boys in trenches watched their feet rot and their friends die.

The current works are being carried out to provide the most fitting memorial possible to such suffering, with pristine order serving as a counterpoint to the incomprehensible horror and chaos of the battlefield.

About 2,000 headstones will be replaced with new ones, identical to the originals. Those to be replaced are marked in the corner with a small red X. Another 7,000 stones will be re-engraved. The rows of stones will be realigned into geometric perfection, the landscaping trimmed and renewed.

“What we don't want are visitors coming in and then finding that they visit the headstone and the flowers aren't as they should be or there is damage on the stone,” said Tony Edwards, an on-site supervisor for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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In a grim coincidence, grave stones generally last 90 years or so before the names are gradually erased by time. And the 100th anniversary of the war comes just as living memory of what was then called the Great War has faded, as well. This will be the first major anniversary for which no known soldiers survive.

But those working to restore the cemeteries say interest in the war is increasing rather than diminishing. Groups of schoolchildren visit and leave messages of appreciation at the graves. Adults — alone, in couples or in groups — wander among the headstones, pausing here and there to read an inscription.

Some stones bear names and dates: “William John Dominey, 21st Bn, Canadian Infantry, 3rd/4th November 1917, Age 18.”

Others stand vigil over bodies never identified: The inscription they bear says “Known unto God.”

And the stone wall at the top of the cemetery has inscribed on its panels the names of 35,000 British servicemen declared missing after Aug. 15, 1917. The names of nearly 55,000 who went missing before that date are inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, in Ypres, which turned out not to be large enough to display all the names of the missing, as had first been planned.

World War I broke out July 28, 1914; the U.S. entered the fight nearly three years later, on April 6, 1917.

The guns finally fell silent more than four years after the war began, on Nov. 11, 1918. Ten million people are estimated to have died. Europe can expect a series of commemorations of various events and battles between 2014 and 2018.

The Tyne Cot cemetery lies near Ypres, an ancient city in northwest Belgium that held a strategic position during World War I, standing in the way of Germany's planned sweep into France from the north. In 2011, more than 300,000 people visited the cemetery, said Stephen Lodewyck, of Westtoer, the West Flanders tourism office. During the centenary years, he said, that might increase by 10 or 15 percent.

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Those working to get the cemetery into perfect shape for the crowds are intensely gratified by their work, said Edwards.

“It is one of those jobs where people come up and they'll tap you on the shoulder and they will thank you,” he said. “Now, there are very few jobs in the world that actually give you that sort of pride.”

Sixty miles (95 kilometers) to the south, in Beaurains, France, where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission manufactures new headstones to replace those that have deteriorated beyond repair, workers also take great pride in what they do.

“It gives me immense satisfaction,” said Michael Diaz, headstone production manager for the Commission. “It's an honor to remember these people.”

Here, 50 tons of stone a week are shipped in — in numerous varieties to match the colors of the originals in place in Commonwealth cemeteries around the world. Workers fit the slabs, each weighing 178 pounds (81 kilograms), into place on etching machines. The machines, guided by digital images, etch exact copies of the original headstone — regimental shield, name, inscription — into the new stone. These are then shipped to Commonwealth cemeteries in 153 countries around the world.

These days, the machines are running 19 to 20 hours a day.

“We had never done more than 6,500-7,000 a year,” Diaz said of the headstones. “We've doubled that now. Last year, we did 12,000. This year, we're on for 15,000.”

Absolute perfection is required, the workers said.

“The most minor flaw, people will notice,” said Bruno Truffier, as he worked on one of the stones. “It's about people who gave their lives. It's thanks to them that we are here.”

In a workshop nearby, Christian Cousin works to repair or replace the small bronze doors that protect cemetery registers, and to replace corroded or broken parts of iron cemetery fences and gates, fashioning by hand exact replicas of the originals.

All these things have an impact on visitors. Those who work at the Tyne Cot cemetery say that for many people, a visit is an emotional experience. What had seemed distant and remote suddenly becomes tangible and immediate.

On a recent Monday, an elderly Scottish man, traveling with his wife, finally found the name of his missing uncle. It was not at Menin Gate, where he had looked in years past, but on the wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery. Later in the day, at Menin Gate, he was still in tears.

“Such a waste,” he said. “It's not just the sheer number. It's the numbers who died in a single day — 40,000, 50,000, 60,000.”

Even those with no direct connection to the war can, as they wander the cemetery aisles, find inscriptions that translate a continental tragedy into personal loss.

“My son I loved you so dearly,” reads the grave of Lance Sargent J.G. Johnson. “My deepest sorrow can never be healed. Mother.”

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