I am extremely passionate about the philosophical and emotional power of visiting battlefields, it’s something I come back to time and time again. Whether this be the impact of battlefield pilgrimages on Veterans, or people gathering up the thread of their family history, following it to the foot of the grave of a relative whom they have never met, yet feel an unspoken connection with. Central to exploring and understanding the power this has on the Western Front in particular, is the landscape itself and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries or as Rudyard Kipling called them, the Silent Cities.
This week I was fortunate enough to attend a preview visit of the new Commonwealth War Graves Commission visitor centre in Beaurains with other members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. I first heard of plans for the centre last year and have been excited at the prospect of a place which can aid in educating people about the remarkable work of the CWGC ever since.
Visitors are given an insight into not just the history of the CWGC, but through glass panelled workshops the day-to-day work of the vast team of carpenters, blacksmiths, stonemasons and gardeners who care for the monuments and cemeteries across the globe today. It’s called the ‘CWGC Experience’ and it really is just that, as the centre itself has the heart and passion of the Commission imbedded within it. The design of the courtyard is a modern day interpretation of some of the most recognisable CWGC sites. The crisp lines, wooden panelling and bare stone somehow evocative of the monuments with which all battlefield wanderers are familiar with. Indeed, much of the centre was made by the very craftsmen and women who work tirelessly to upkeep the Silent Cities, using recycled and sustainable materials where possible.
The purpose of the centre is to highlight the huge amount of behind the scenes work the Commission does; from recovery, identification and reburial of remains (the figures will astound any visitor) to the upkeep and maintenance of their sites around the world. The recognisable CWGC headstones are all made here in Beaurains, destined for not just France and Belgium but Myannmar, Kenya, Bermuda and all of the other 23,000 locations the world over maintained by the CWGC. Beaurains is at the heart of the CWGC work and it is clear to see that here. The centre provides answers to many common questions but the highlight is the amphitheatre style courtyard which allows us to see demonstrations from the CWGC team, whilst providing the perfect stage for talks on a countless number of topics from the historical roots of the IWGC to horticulture or the processes involved in identifying soldier’s remains.
The Silent Cities are a world-wide phenomena, memorial constellations that map man’s struggle in the two major conflicts of the 20th century over the 102 years since the CWGC’s foundation. They provide us with not just an indelible reminder of past sacrifice on a global scale but on an individual level – the 1.7 million men and women residing in the Silent Cities remembered, in aeternum. You do not have to have an interest in Military History or even the wider social and cultural elements of the History of War to appreciate and understand the importance of the work done by CWGC, you simply need an interest in humanity. At the CWGC Experience, the thing that stands out above all else is that the words of Sir Frederic Kenyon are as true in 2019 as they were when written in 1918 – ‘no labour is spared, and nothing that careful thought can provide is wanting to pay the tribute of reverence and honour which is due to those that have fallen for their country’