The immense task of finding, reburying and honouring the servicemen and women who died in the two World Wars will be highlighted at a new visitor attraction in northern France.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Experience will provide a behind the scenes look at its commemoration of 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead.
Located at Beaurains, south of Arras, in the heart of the former First World War battlefields, the CWGC’s £1.2 million centre will be opened by the Princess Royal on Tuesday.
Visitors will get a close-up look at how CWGC staff maintain its 23,000 memorial and cemetery sites around the world, and an insight into the work to recover and identify remains.
On average around 40 remains are discovered each year on First World War battlefields, a rate which would require another 4,300 years to find all the missing.
“Remembrance for us is a day in, day out, 24/7 process,” said Dr Lucy Kellett, a CWGC interpretation officer who oversaw the audio guide, displays and films for the new centre.
“We are telling the story of what we do with the bodies that we find and how we narrow down identities, the clues we find through objects,” she added.
Research and DNA testing techniques help identify individuals who are all given full military honour burials, regardless of whether they can be named.
None of the 160 remains currently held in the CWGC mortuary will be on display at its new centre, where the emphasis is on respectful remembrance and the dedication of its staff.
Around 900 technical staff, including gardeners, stonemasons, carpenters, blacksmiths and mechanics, are employed in more than 150 countries to look after sites where bodies are finally laid to rest.
At the centre’s entrance, a quote by poet Rudyard Kipling, the CWGC’s initial literary adviser, sums up the scale of the remembrance challenge: “The biggest single bit of work since any of the pharoahs – and they only worked in their own country.”
More than 575,000 fallen servicemen and women are commemorated in France alone.
The largest CWGC cemetery at Tyne Cot in Belgium holds almost 12,000 graves of which more than 8,300 are unknowns.
At its new free-to-enter centre, which was partly funded by a £700,000 LIBOR grant, visitors can watch the headstone engraving process as regimental badges, names and personal inscriptions are etched on.
Live demonstrations by skilled craftsman will explain how they restore and conserve CWGC’s historic sites worn down by visitors, pesticides, climate change and wild animals.
Between 3,500 and 4,000 headstones are produced in Beaurains each year.
Waiting for shipment to the UK are a set of headstones to replace those damaged by vandals at the Hirst Wood burial ground in Shipley, Bradford, earlier this month.
CWGC Experience project manager Gareth Hardware said he expected it to welcome 15,000 to 20,000 visitors in its first year, as the CWGC moves towards being a more outward-facing organisation.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t know about us,” he said.
“Our first goal was to show people the work in the workshop and second level is to explain our global commitment.”
Mr Hardware admitted staff were initially worried about being a “goldfish in a bowl” but were now “very on board” with the centre project.
He said generations of the same families have contributed to the work of the CWGC, with links being established with local schools.
“They will be our future, they will be our people, the gardeners of tomorrow and the stone masons of tomorrow,” he said.
He hoped people making the “pilgrimage” to France and west Flanders to find relatives would visit the centre.
“We’ve generated this interest with the centenary and we need to keep that going,” he added.
Families pay their respects every year at CWGC sites across France, often leaving behind touching tributes – whisky glasses, rugby balls, cricket bats, photos or single poppies.
“Strip everything away, we are a truly human organisation,” said Peter Francis, media and PR executive at CWGC.
“We keep their memories alive.”
He said CWGC was moving from a “maintenance organisation to a heritage one”, in part to value its sites as “works of art in their own right”.
First formally established as the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 under visionary founder Sir Fabian Ware, the CWGC is committed to commemorating Commonwealth forces personnel who died between 1914 and 1921, and 1939 and 1947.
Three principal architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir Herbert Baker designed many of its most impressive memorial sites.
Kipling chose the dedications that appear on memorial features, including those on the Lutyens-designed stones of remembrance at large cemeteries: “Their name liveth for evermore.”
In 2015/16 CWGC received £61 million from the partner governments of the UK, Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and New Zealand.
The Commonwealth nations share the cost of CWGC’s work in proportion to the number of their graves cared for, with the UK contributing around 78% of funds.
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