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Maintaining The Silent “Cities of Stone”

Blank tablets arrive at the workshops in Beaurains, France to be inscribed and sent to cemeteries all over the world. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

Blank tablets arrive at the workshops in Beaurains, France to be inscribed and sent to cemeteries all over the world.
Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele is the largest of the commission’s cemeteries. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele is the largest of the commission’s cemeteries.

Anyone visiting one of the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be struck by the beauty and simplicity and the uniformity of the place.

But maintaining that look is an ongoing challenge for the commission. Much of the work is done in the town of Beaurains, near Arras in northern France.

Pilgrims on the The Royal Canadian Legion’s Youth Leaders Pilgrimage of Remembrance glimpsed the amount and quality of work when it visited the war graves commission’s workshops while on the tour in July (The Remembrance Odyssey, November/December).

The commission which celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2007, oversees the commemoration of the dead from World War I and World II as well as looking after other memorials under contract to other government bodies. “Each body, identified or unidentified, has a headstone over its grave; each missing
casualty is commemorated by name on a memorial. The sheer volume of human loss, particularly in the First World War, brought about the creation of silent cities of stone all over the world,” says one of the commission’s publications.

A tour of the facility was given by Alan Jarvis, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s works manager at the workshops.

The commission has built and maintains 2,410 constructed war cemeteries and war graves plots in 149 countries. As well, thousands of headstones
scattered throughout churchyards and municipal cemeteries are erected and maintained by the commission.

In addition 208 memorials carry the names of more than 750,000 servicemen with no known grave. One memorial, Thiepval in France, near Canada’s memorial at Beaumont Hamel, has 70,000 names of the missing from the battles of the Somme.

Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele in Belgium is the largest cemetery with almost 12,000 graves occupying an area of 3.5 hectares.

The work is founded on four main principles:

• that each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name;

• that the headstones and memorials be permanent;

• that the headstones be uniform;

• that there be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.

However with the wages of weather, time and pollution, the memorials
cannot be permanent and need regular maintenance and occasional replacement. The workshop in Beaurains is busy just replacing the stones. About 100 new headstones a week, or 5,000 in a year, are processed and inscribed and sent to the cemeteries from all over the world.

The stones arrive at the factory as blank tablets. Where once the stones were all hand-carved by skilled artisans, they are now cut by two computerized incisograph machines that carve out
the names and inscriptions in several languages.

“Accuracy is very important to the commission,” said Jarvis. “Each one has to be researched and have the name and details verified. Families will often come to us after the stones are erected and say that a birth date is incorrect or a name should be spelled differently. We do everything we can to make sure everything is accurate.”

The stone most closely associated with the commission is Portland limestone which is easy to cut and sculpt. Portland stone is admired for its pure colour, hardness and durability. However the stone which comes from Dorset on England’s south coast is in finite supply and the commission has been looking for alternatives. One such is Italian Botticino limestone. Another limestone comes from Lens in northern France.

The commission has two other centres for headstones production, Brescia in northern Italy and Cairo in Egypt.

While stonework is the primary focus of the shop in Beaurains, it also looks after a large amount of brickwork, cast and wrought iron, cast bronze, joinery, stainless steel and concrete. Everything is built to high standards using the best techniques known.

“Maintenance using modern cost-effective conservation techniques is a vital part of the work,” explained Jarvis.

Stones are often victim to fungi, lichens and mosses that can cause decay. At one time the growth was removed by labour-intensive process using water and a scrubbing brush. The commission has pioneered the use of a biocidal wash which can be sprayed on the stones every few years to remove the threat of biological growth.

The workshops are also responsible for things such as directional signs which have to be in English and the
language of the country. It has its own iron workshop for the railings and trim used on the gates and other parts of the cemetery such as the iron doors that close up shelves where the books with the names of those buried in the cemeteries are kept.

“We also build much of the furniture around the cemeteries such as benches. Many people tell us that our benches are old but they are solid. The commission believes in letting wood age naturally. Eventually they have to be replaced. We are looking at new woods that stand up better to the weather to use.”

Jarvis pointed out several benches and wood structures around the shop which are left outside so researchers can test their ability to withstand weather and pollution.

The war graves commission is financed by the partner governments in the Commonwealth. The United Kingdom is by far the largest contributor, putting up 78.43 per cent of the annual budget. Canada is the second highest contributor with 10.07 per cent of the budget.


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