At the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in La Targette, northern France, a team is lovingly restoring the gravestones of those soldiers from Britain and her Empire who fell during the Great War.

There are so many gravestones that need repairing that the whole process will take 28 years - then when it's done the whole thing will start again.

There are nearly 800,000 individual World War I headstones - not to mention 500,000 memorial inscriptions to those without an identified grave - and each one must be restored by hand.

There are 641 graves in La Targette commonwealth war cemetery, with the fallen from countries across the former British Empire - Britain, Australia, India, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa etc.

Around 1.7 million soldiers from the British Empire died during the Great War - around 1.1 million of those were British.

The 44 million budget for maintaining the graves of the dead from the Commonwealth is shared amongst the Commonwealth nations in direct proportion to the loss each nation suffered.

Therefore, Britain pays 78% of this budget.

The beautiful gravestones of the Commonwealth cemetery is in stark contrast to that of the cemetery containing the bodies of the French soldiers.

The French graves are not engraved. Instead, they have small marker plates attached to the crosses. There are no flowerbeds, no grassy aisles, no intimacy. It is huge and impersonal.

'Here in France, we have a different culture,' says Robert Fontana of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

'People do not remember their war dead like you. The British soldiers are looked after much better.'

Carve their names with pride: The team that spends decades restoring the graves of fallen soldiers

By Robert Hardman
08th November 2008
Daily Mail

Private Arthur Chapman is looking immaculate once again. Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Lowry DSO MC is spick and span, too.

Their cap badges are freshly scrubbed and they are a credit to their units as they stand proudly to attention in the November rain.

Some of their comrades, though, appear rather worn out. A few are almost beyond recognition.

Painstaking: Engravers at work in Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France

But they, too, are about to be restored to their former glory thanks to a small team in boots and anoraks and an extraordinary operation so vast in scale and scope that it is going to take nearly 30 years to complete.

Pte Chapman and Lt-Col Lowry have been dead for the best part of a century, just two of the 1.1 million British men who went off to the Great War and never returned.

They are buried in that sacred, tragic patchwork of cemeteries across Northern France and Belgium - the Western Front as we once called it.

Gone they may be, but these men are certainly not forgotten. Because 90 years after the guns fell silent, every single headstone of every last British and Commonwealth serviceman killed in World War I is being painstakingly cleaned, re-engraved, touched up and sanded down.

Pollution, the elements and plain old age may have taken their toll on these memorials, but not a single sacrifice will be allowed to fade.

When you think that there are nearly 800,000 individual World War I headstones - not to mention 500,000 memorial inscriptions to those without an identified grave - and that each one must be restored by hand, you begin to appreciate the enormity of the project.

The staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, that splendid outfit which honours the memory of 1.7 million British and Commonwealth war dead in 150 countries, expect this task to take at least 28 years and cost 15 million.

British soldiers launch an attack at Arras on 9 April 1917

But there is no question of cutting corners on the costs or the details. If just one name is allowed to disappear, we will all have failed in our debt to the fallen.

As the Commission's Peter Francis puts it: 'We believe that an eroded inscription is a brave man or woman forgotten and that is unacceptable.'

So I have come to La Targette British Cemetery near the French town of Arras. Normally, all would be still and tranquil here.

But, today, there is the rasp of sandpaper and the whine of the engraver's drill. This is the latest stop for the Commission's renovation team.

Scattered among the graves are half a dozen little green lean-to shelters beneath which earnest Frenchmen with face masks are sitting or squatting as they focus patiently on the graves of long-lost subjects of the old British Empire.

With 641 graves, La Targette is not particularly large. It's a typical Commonwealth war grave in that it is a stirring, lovingly maintained corner of a foreign field that is forever England. It's neither triumphal nor lugubrious - just carefully understated and utterly appropriate.

In one corner, there is the little bronze box containing the register which lists the name and number of all known casualties. It's the ages which catch the eye and tug the heart. Most are in their 20s.

Eric Lowry, on the end of Row C, was only 25 when he died in 1918 and yet he had already won the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross as well as reaching the rank of Lt-Col in the West Yorkshire Regiment. So much growing up, so little time. And all of it extinguished on September 23, 1918, less than two months before that precious peace...

With its neat stone walls, wrought iron gates and tidy lawns, even on a filthy wet November afternoon, this place has the reassuring feel of a much-loved English country garden. And so it should. That was the plan when this cemetery - and hundreds like it - were built soon after the Armistice.

Field guns are seen a battlefield near Arras

La Targette was one of many designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of London's Regent Street no less. When it came to honouring the fallen, the greatest creative minds of the day - Sir Edwin Lutyens, Rudyard Kipling, Gertrude Jekyll and others - solemnly applied their talents to the task.

In the end, more than 1,200 of these cemeteries were built in France and Belgium alone after 1918 - to be followed by another 559 worldwide after the slaughter of World War II.

Ever since, relatives making the painful journey to the last resting place of a loved one have found it tremendously comforting and uplifting to see the rigorous care and constant attention which is still devoted to the memory of every single fatality.

And that is why Jean-Marie Davre and his little team from the commission's maintenance department are sitting in the rain with their drills and sandpaper.

'You feel a great respect in a place like this,' says Jean-Marie, who has been tending British graves for 31 years and says his work can never end.

In total, the commission has 14 men restoring headstones at a rate of around six a day.
Little wonder that this project is going to take decades.

They start by sanding and brushing the front of each headstone and then set to work on the inscription. There is not just a name and number to deal with but also an insignia. In the case of British Forces, this might be a cap badge. Every Canadian soldier has a maple leaf.

All headstones on the Western Front are made of Portland stone and were originally engraved to a depth that would be legible at two paces.

Arras was badly damaged by the first World War

Because erosion has reduced that to a scratch, Jean-Marie and his men must retrace all the original engraving with a dentist-style drill that whirs at 2,000 revolutions per second. When it's finally done, the whole headstone is smoothed down with a fine sanding machine.

The results are startling. Eric Lowry's freshly scrubbed headstone looks much as it would have done 90 years ago. And the restorers are equally diligent when it comes to anonymous graves with their simple inscription, penned by Rudyard Kipling (a man who lost his only son in the trenches): 'A Soldier Of The Great War Known Unto God.'

It can be back-breaking work, though, particularly when there is an extra message to be restored at the foot of the headstone.

Back in 1918, the founding fathers of the Commission decided to allow families to add an extra inscription for a fee of three-and-a-half pence per letter. Hence those harrowing little messages which can stop you in your tracks: 'Our beloved only son . . .' and so on.

In the hard aftermath of war, many people did not have the pennies to spare for words on a foreign headstone. But now, the Commission is finding that, even 90 years later, many families are keen to make amends.

A few years ago, retired accountant Lionel Birch took his mother, Lillian, to see her father's grave for the first time. Pte Arthur Chapman was 32 when he was killed serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Lionel and Lillian found his grave in the huge Faubourg d'Amiens Commonwealth cemetery at Arras. There was no message on his headstone, so Lionel contacted the commission to explain that the family would like one after all these years.

The commission obliged free of charge, and now Arthur Chapman's grave has not just been renovated, but also inscribed with the words: 'Though You Are Far Away, You Are Not Forgotten, Always Remembered.'

Lillian has since passed away but Lionel is planning another trip to Arras. 'It's amazing to go there and see all these graves in a straight line, not a single one out of place.'

Guardsman Frank Bird of the Grenadier Guards also has a smart new headstone. He was killed by a German bayonet during hand-tohand combat in September 1918 and is buried at the Sanders Keep Cemetery near Cambrai.

His daughter, Elsie Beer, 96, still finds it hard to talk about the loving father who left the Welsh mines and went off to war when she was six. But Elsie's granddaughter, Bethan Roberts, 32, recently made a trip to Frank's grave on Elsie's behalf.

'It was amazing to see how beautiful it all was. I just cried when I saw it all. There was one grave with the message 'Forgive Them Lord For They Know Not What They Do' and that really hit me.'

Bethan was disappointed, though, to find Frank's headstone dedicated in error to 'T. Bird'. She alerted the commission.

'They were brilliant. My great-grandfather now has a new headstone and we've added a message - 'Remembered With Love And Pride'. We're all so proud of him and my grandmother is really pleased we've been to see him.'

The fact that, 90 years on, the Commission's work still means so much to so many is testimony to the determination of its founding father, Fabian Ware.

He was commander of a British Red Cross unit in France in 1914 and quickly realised that many graves were in danger of disappearing in the bedlam of war. He decided to record as many as possible and his work was quickly given official recognition by the War Office.

By 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission had been established by Royal Charter with the Prince of Wales as president and, once peace was declared, several fundamental principles were established.

Chief among them was the importance of 'brotherhood' among the fallen. It was decided there should be no repatriation of remains (an option which would be available only to the wealthy), that there should be no private memorials and everyone should have an identical grave, regardless of rank.

Besides burying more than 500,000 known casualties and another 187,000 unidentified remains, memorials would be required for another 500,000 men and women with no known grave.

It was a colossal undertaking which was completed only in 1938, just in time for the next world war. But the quiet majesty of those early cemeteries had established a model of remembrance which remains just as powerful and valid today.

The title has changed from 'Imperial' to 'Commonwealth' and the 44 million budget for maintaining memorials to 1.7 million men and women at 23,000 sites worldwide is shared by the Commonwealth nations in direct proportion to their loss.

Britain's share is 78 per cent - but it would be a suicidal Government which tried to cut this expense.

Like the painting of the Forth Bridge, this is a task which will never stop.

At the commission's French headquarters in Arras, I find a modern engraving machine producing fresh headstones to replace old ones beyond repair. Some of the more intricate engraving jobs still need to be done by hand.

Philippe Marczyk, 48, is gently tapping away at the headstone of Trooper Lionel Smith of the Australian Light Horse Machine Gun Squad who was killed in 1916 at the age of 29. 'I feel that I am doing this for the families, but also for the guy who is lying down there in the ground,' he says.

Back at La Targette, Jean-Marie's boss, Robert Fontana, has turned up to check on progress.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that this British cemetery sits alongside a much larger French cemetery with as many as 10,000 graves neatly spaced under little crosses.

The contrast is striking. The French graves are not engraved. Instead, they have small marker plates attached to the crosses. There are no flowerbeds, no grassy aisles, no intimacy. It is huge and impersonal. 'Here in France, we have a different culture,' says Robert.

'People do not remember their war dead like you. The British soldiers are looked after much better.' In a few days, La Targette will be fully restored and the maintenance team will move on, leaving everything looking brand new, including the large stone of remembrance you find in every Commonwealth cemetery.

They all carry the same inscription, devised by Rudyard Kipling. It reads: 'Their Name Liveth For Evermore.' And I am very glad to say that it does.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 9th, 2008 at 12:13 PM..