FUMBLING through a seemingly mixed bag of artefacts, Steve Arnold (pictured above and below) pulled out a fraying army boot – just one more clue to identifying yet another of the 217,000 Great War soldiers killed in France with no known grave.
A gruesome task, yes. But for Steve, a gardener and exhumation officer with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it could add another name to the annual recovery and burial of around 40 bodies.
Based at Beaurains, close to Arras in the Pas de Calais region of France, his team’s painstaking – and often dangerous – role is gently explained to visitors, many with children, to the £1.2million CWGC Experience showcasing the work of the Commission’s experts in 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries.
‘This means sifting through a seemingly mixed bag of artefacts, such as a spoon with a possible tell- tale army number on it.’ he explained. ‘This can be a dangerous job as some guys have grenades still on ‘em.’
One colleague was around when a mustard bomb went off. On another occasion, soon after the war ended, and with bodies only just being discovered, a group of Belgians suffered fatalities when a shell exploded while they were making a cup of tea. Another dig unearthed, literally, what turned out to be a murder victim!
Ironically, his team’s work has been helped by the expansion of towns and cities, with builders – and not just farmers, as once was so often the case – reporting individual or multiple remains.
All of which helps identifying and reburying the thousands of bodies which remain undiscovered both in France (for which Steve’s team is responsible) and by archaeologists in Belgium. A mortuary, holding the remains of those found is out of bounds to public view as a mark of respect.
‘ We can be called out 20 to 50 times year,’ added Steve. ‘ In the last two weeks we were called out on two separate occasions to the same location.’
With wartime maps indicating major battles involving specific regiments, simple items can lead to a 50-50 chance of those in France with No Known Grave being identified. Even so it would, at the current rate, take a staggering 4,300 years to find all of the missing! Each find undergoes forensic examination with artefacts cleaned before a 320-page report is submitted to the Commission’s headquarters.
Conscious of a fresh generation curious to know more about tracing often long forgotten relatives, the centre, opened by Princess Anne, provides not just ‘ good loos and great coffee’ but a family orientated round-up between the Commission’s peacetime role and commemorating the 1.17million casualties from two World Wars.
Steve whose own father worked for the Commission, is just one of the specialist staff eager to chat with visitors who, during my visit, included families and a coachload of visiting Brits. The first ever couple to visit the centre, incidentally, were French.
An indication perhaps that, conscious of a fresh generation now increasingly visiting war graves, the centre has much more, and I quote, than ‘good loos and great coffee’ – but provides a perfect balance between the Commission’s peacetime role worldwide and commemorating the 1.7 million casualties from two World Wars.
All of which is neatly achieved with the help either of a free audio guide or a self-guided 45 minutes to an hour stroll.
Whether admiring how 21st century technology helps create, or restore, the iconic headstones, or chatting to the carpenters working on the surprising amount of woodwork used for monuments and cemeteries, you feel humbled by the immensity of the Commission’s task. Marvel, too, as the metal workers reshape and repair historic artefacts in the flames of a forge.
Photo credits: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, John Ruler
Unobtrusively located near a huddle of suburban homes, the centre, with its large car park, is open Monday to Friday 9am-4pm, bar weekends, French public holidays and December and January for maintenance. Entry is free, with easy access for those with disabilities.
Further information: See www.cwgc.org/visit-us/visitor-centres/cwgc-experience