Home News France still yields grisly reminders of Great War

France still yields grisly reminders of Great War

Published on November 09, 2005

ARRAS, France, Nov 9 (AFP) - Nearly 90 years after the end of World War I, the soil of northern France still yields the remains of servicemen on both sides who suffered and died in the trenches.

In June alone the bones of two British soldiers were discovered, one of them near Arras, scene of bitter fighting in 1917, and one believed killed in the last month of the war.

For each one that is found, military experts will work from the fragments of evidence and regimental records to identify him, before he is finally buried with all due ceremony in one of the many war cemeteries scattered across the region.

Each British and Commonwealth soldier who fell in World War One, whether officer or man, lies beneath an identical, simple headstone, 575,000 in all for France alone.

Those who were identified have name, rank and regiment engraved on the white Portland stone. Unidentified remains bear the inscription “Known unto God.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) linking Britain and 52 former colonies tends some 1,500 military cemeteries in France, holding the dead of both world wars, along with 22 memorials.

More are in Belgium, including the biggest Great War graveyard of Tyne Cot, near Ypres.

There are more than 600 in the Pas-de-Calais area on the Channel coast of northern France alone, and 400 in the Somme Valley, which saw some of the worst British casualties, 60,000 alone from raking German machine gunfire on the first day of the July 1916 Somme offensive.

The Commission also tends cemeteries of Chinese victims of the Great War who had been drafted in by the British to serve as behind the lines labour brigades.

The CWGC has sites in 148 countries, but Chris Farrell, its administration manager here, says its greatest commitment is in northern France.

“It’s nearly a third of the Commission budget,” he said. “It’s funded by the Commonwealth countries.”

Contributions were based on the proportion of dead borne by each country.

“Basically Britain is the main contributor and pays 78 percent of the budget.”

“We’ve got 33 teams based in large sectors with vehicles and machinery and they do 50-80 cemeteries on a mobile basis,” Farrell explained.

Ninety years on, bodies, bombs and grenades are still found in fields and country lanes.

When local farmers recover, as they still do, remains bearing traces of British insignia, Commission staff recover these for identification by the British defence ministry.

“If there’s a possibility to identify the remains, it can take some years before we can rebury them,” said Farrell. “Even after 90 years you find a few bones.”

It took three years to identify a Scottish soldier killed in 1915 but only discovered in 2001, partly through a fountain-pen found with the body, lying alongside another man who remains unnamed.

The remains of four Australian soldiers were identified before being buried last April.

France has ceded the terrain of each British war cemetery in perpetuity. The names of soldiers whose bodies have never been recovered are engraved on memorials such as the huge arch at Thiepval on the Somme.

Opened in 1932 by the then Prince of Wales, the 45.72-metres high Thiepval structure remains the largest British war memorial in the world, containing the names of 73,357 British and South African men who have no known grave and who fell on the Somme between July 1916 and March 1918.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news