We may well have heard of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but know little of their peacetime role. This is why, in June, 2019, Princess Anne opened the £1.2million CWGC Experience, a unique behind–the–scenes glimpse of their work, at Beaurains just south of Arras in Pas de Calais, France.
Described as ‘emphatically not a museum’ it provides an insight into how teams of experts tend to 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries – with the gardeners, of which there are 850 out of a total workforce of 1,300, mowing the equivalent of 1,000 football pitches.
For Steve Arnold, his gardening duties combine with that of exhumation officer whose team is responsible for the recovery and burial of around 40 bodies yearly.
This may mean sifting through a seemingly mixed bag of artefacts, from a fraying boot or helmet to a spoon with a possible tell–tale army number on it – all vital clues to identifying yet another of the 217,000 Great War soldiers killed in France with no known grave.
‘This can be a dangerous job as some of the guys have grenades still on ‘em,” admits Steve. 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 Belgian team 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!
‘We can be contacted 20 to 50 times a year,’ added Steve. ‘In the last two weeks alone we were called out on two separate occasions to the same location.'
Ironically, their 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.
Whether admiring his efforts, or chatting to skilled artisans working on the iconic headstones or the surprising amount of woodwork and metal used for monuments and cemeteries you feel humbled by the immensity of the Commission’s task.
A free audio guide or a self-guided 45-minute to an hour– long stroll, along with an ever eager to help staff neatly sums up this remarkable showcase to the Commission’s current role while commemorating the 1.7 million who died during two World Wars.
The centre, with its large car park, is open Monday to Friday 9am-4pm (weekends allow the craftsmen a short break), French public holidays and December and January for maintenance. Entry is free, with easy access for those with disabilities.
Nominated by John Ruler, the CWGC Experience was voted the Best Europe Tourism Project for 2019 in the British Guild of Travel Writers International Tourism Awards. Of the 1,400-plus visitors so far 60 per cent have been British. There has also been a high proportion of French – including school children – as well as visitors from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, India and even Russia.
For further information, visit www.cwgc.org.