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Measures Taken To Protect Postwar Canadian Graves In Europe

by Tom MacGregor

Gus Turner (left), Fran MacBride and Web site designer Mike Block announce the Department of National Defence’s program to protect postwar Canadian graves in Europe.

While the world wars of the last century left Europe with a scattering of well tended war cemeteries, the Cold War left the countryside sprinkled with individual graves of Canadian Forces personnel and their families in various local military and civilian cemeteries.

The Department of National Defence says there are 1,370 Canadian servicemen, servicewomen and their dependants buried in Europe between the end of World War II and the early 1990s. It was a period when Canada had significant numbers of air force and army personnel serving with North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Shockingly, many of those graves have been lost. Unlike in Canada where graves are kept in perpetuity, the Europeans lease graves, usually for 20 to 25 years after which the headstones are removed and the grave is used again.

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“We only became aware of this issue as we prepared to leave Europe,” said Gus Turner, the director of Realty and Engineering Policy at National Defence Headquarters. “I started receiving letters from people who had relatives buried there but no grave could be found.”

There was no clear policy on selection of graves for dependants during the period. “We would find that a Canadian had been buried in a military cemetery one month and another person would be buried in a civilian cemetery in the next month,” said Fran MacBride, the senior policy adviser who has been overseeing the project.

Now DND has brought the issue to light with a Web site accessible from the D-Net news site, Names can be easily searched through the alphabetical listings. Where possible a photo of the grave is included with the entry. The Web site was launched at a news conference at National Defence Headquarters April 26.

DND has been in negotiations to renew leases in order to protect the graves. “In some cases we got a 50-year lease but we were not able to get in perpetuity granted because they cannot offer German citizens the same thing,” said MacBride.

The department has been working with local authorities as well as Veterans Affairs Canada and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In some cases graves have been allowed to be added in cemeteries maintained in perpetuity by the war graves commission.

The graves in question are mostly in France and Germany. There are also graves in Belgium, Sardinia and Brookwood Cemetery in England. There is one grave in Holland at Rotterdam.

Those in France are at Bistroff, Choloy, Lelling, Marville and St. Avold. In Germany the graves are at Lahr, Rheinmunster-Sollingen, Werl and Zweibbrucken. Werl has the most graves, 448. Of those 124 are military and 324 are dependants. That’s followed by Choloy in France with 334 graves, 283 of which are military with 51 dependants.

“The graves of serving members are by far the smaller number,” said MacBride. Many of them are newborn children. For those graves that have been lost, a memorial cairn will be raised in the cemetery where the grave once was. It will feature the names of the Canadians buried there, many of which simply say Baby in front of the surnames.

The cairns are grey granite and feature a maple leaf and the inscription “We will remember them.” The dedication is in English and French in France and in English, French and German in Germany.

“By mid-June the Web site had over 14,000 visitors so it is popular,” MacBride told Legion Magazine. “We are hearing from people–mostly people who want to tell us there is an error in a name. That’s good–we want to know about that.”

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