The Organisation that looks after British Soldier’s Cemeteries

Before the First World War soldiers were generally buried in mass graves. Only those who were in the upper ranks would have been accorded an individual burial and a memorial.

As it says on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, “It is difficult for those of us who have become familiar with the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate our war dead to appreciate what a revolutionary idea remembrance and, therefore, the Commission was in 1917. Nonetheless, the Commission was a pioneer and what it was doing during and in the aftermath of the First World War was extraordinary.

Never had a nation, let alone an Empire as vast and multicultural as the British Empire, attempted to commemorate all its war dead from a given conflict. No template existed for the task of commemorating the dead on such a mammoth scale. Everything we now take for granted, every facet of remembrance, had to be worked out, debated, costed and delivered.

The Commission, and the establishment of remembrance as we know it, is largely thanks to the vision and determination of one man Fabian Ware.”

I have used the Commission’s site many, many times to look up information on British First World War Cemeteries in my area of France. Simply by typing in your postcode you can find all the gravesites in your area.

When I saw that the Commission was having an open day at their headquarters in Beaurains near Arras I jumped at the chance to know more.

I have always been impressed by the amount of information on a British war grave. There is the badge of the regiment such as the Royal Naval Division, or simply the Suffolk Regiment or the more poetic the Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Next comes the number and grade of the soldier, then as much of his name as is known, his battalion name followed by his date of death and his age. Usually there is a large cross and space for a few words, such as Rest in Peace or something more personal that was chosen by his family. By contrast French memorials are simple crosses with the name of the soldier, rank and only the initials of the regiment. If you don’t know that R.I.C is Regiment of Infantry Colonial then R.I.C. is not much use. The date of death is written on a French soldier’s grave but not his age.

German war graves have 4 names on the back and front arms of wooden crosses – hardly any information at all.

First of all we were shown the supplies of stone that could be used for memorials. I was surprised to see reddish ones and slate stones waiting to be engraved. In France the usual stones are white Portland stone but other materials are sometimes used. We were surprised to see finished headstones waiting to be shipped to Nigeria.

We learnt that there are subtile differences in the top shape of stones. For instance, a rounded top may indicate not a soldier but an administrator of the commission.

All the iron work in a French cemetery is made or repaired at Beaurains. The decorative finials on top of fences or gates are made in the smithy at Beaurains as are the metal boxes that contain the Book of Remembrance at each cemetery. A worn or degraded piece of metal work can be recreated or repaired in the CWGC workshop.

Then we were shown how the engraving was done and could even have a go ourselves at etching our names or tapping away with stonemason’s tools.

Inside the building was an explanation of how exhumed bodies could be identified by the types of buttons or the shape of a helmet. The presence of a wooden baton would indicate the rank of officer.

I have just found that I can join a Facebook site that gives news of the CWGC. I haven’t mentioned the meticulous work of keeping the cemeteries beautifully cared for with neatly mown grass and flowers in front of each grave. That is part of the legacy of Fabian Ware – he wanted the graveyards to be peaceful and pleasant and not sad, morbid places. I was touched to see a flower picture – it was the blue and red Pulmonaria – also known as Soldiers and Sailors!

A Light Lunch

Even after 15 years of living in France we are still learning things and being surprised by French culture.

In the UK being invited to come for ‘a light lunch’ might mean a ham salad, or soup followed by cheese and biscuits. Jamie Oliver suggests crab cakes or potato rostis. The fail-safe option would be pizza whether the location is Italy, France or the British Isles. My mother used to take the ‘Woman’s Realm’ weekly magazine in which were short stories of the ‘Romantic fiction’ genre. She noted that when an impromptu romantic meal was called for, a fresh herb omelette was often rustled up by the handsome hero.

Twice in the recent past we have been invited for a ‘light lunch’ by friends. Arriving around midday, we have been greeted with an apéritif of either champagne or a gin and tonic. On the coffee table would be a selection of bowls containing nibbles such as dried fruits and nuts, crisps, toasts with smoked salmon on a bed of cream cheese – things that can be eaten as finger food. Sliced pizza may also be served as it is considered as an apéritif and not as a main course.

We learnt this when invited to participate in ‘bring a contribution’ type meals. Our home-made pizza disappeared from the buffet where we had placed it and reappeared in pieces to be passed around as an appetiser. If your offering happens to be ‘gluten free’ and was what you had planned to eat, this presents a problem!

A pleasant time of conversation and friendly exchange ensues while seated in an informal manner. The next step is to be invited to the dining table already set with cutlery, glasses for water, napkins and wine glasses and possibly a simple vase of flowers.

The next courses could start with an entrée, avocado and parma ham, some prawns and salad in a Marie Rose dressing, a pâté or an egg dish. Do not serve anything to do with cheese as that is catered for later! Bread will be offered but never with butter. The bread has an unexpected use as a way of cleaning your plate of any sauces -because the plate will not be removed but will be also used for the main course!

Fish, casseroles, sliced ham, almost anything could be served as the ‘plat principal’ but don’t expect any vegetables except the ubiquitous green beans – les haricots verts. Starches -‘féculants’ such as potatoes, rice or pasta usually accompany meat. A student who stayed with us asked if our ‘light lunch’ of mixed salads could include some ‘féculants’ otherwise she would feel light-headed in the afternoon!

So far we have had apéritifs, un entrée, le plat principal but we have not finished! Next comes the salad either separately from or with the cheese plus more bread. Several cheeses are usually offered a blue veined one, a hard cheese, a goat’s cheese and a camembert. Be careful not to cut across the pointy end of a wedge of cheese as this is considered the best part. Try to leave the cheese in the same basic shape as when it arrived.

We are nearly at the end of our light lunch! Desert! Perhaps a Crème brûlée, mousse au chocolat, crème caramel or a simple yogurt.

The students who stayed with us were adamant that they would not drink a coffee with us at 11am. French people drink coffee with their breakfast and after their lunch.

That was how our ‘light lunches’ ended and we were even treated to After Eight Mints!

The End

The last post entitled ‘Zoos’ brings me to the end of what was supposed to be a book. However, I haven’t been able to find a good title or an appropriate design for the cover. ‘The Definitive Dictionary of the Differences between Dunkirk and Dover’ sums up the salient key points, but isn’t very catchy. If any of you have a better idea for a title or are budding book cover designers, let me know. Or perhaps you have some of your own thoughts about the differences between our two cultures that have surprised you that I did not mention.

Next week will be a reflection on the subject of ‘Light Lunches’. If you are British – what would you serve? If you are French- what would you serve guests that you have invited for a Light Lunch?

Bye for now!

Joy

Zoos

In France the zoo comes to you! One day we had a very bad smell in the house,  reminiscent of when local farmers used to spread pig manure on their fields near our house in Bedfordshire.  It was horrible. My husband returned from a trip to the shops to report that we had a circus on an old car showroom forecourt at the bottom of our road.  The circus featured lions, tigers, camels,  ponies and other animals. When there was not a show taking place in the big top we could visit the site to see the animals for a small charge.The proprietors were also happy for us to fill sacks from their dung heap! What fun!

X-RAYS.

When you go to have an X-ray taken, you will be asked to wait until the doctor has written up your notes and the pictures have been developed. You are given a copy of the report and the X-ray. I have a folder of mine in the office. Friends who moved to a new house found an envelope of images of someone’s ribs and knees in the wardrobe. It was a novel day when I received pictures of my breasts in the post – X-ray pictures that is! 

WILLS.

It is always sensible to make a will. If you die intestate in France the department that searches out inheritors only looks as far as cousins. After that the money goes to the French state.

WEEING

Some French men think that it is perfectly all right to relieve themselves in public. A roundabout into town seems to be a popular place to stop a car and just do it in full view of everyone. Some toilets in restaurants seem designed so that women entering have to avert their eyes from the men’s urinal that is plainly in view.

WEDDING CAKE

In France it is traditionally a ‘pièce montée’, a tall conical tower of choux buns stuck together with spun caramel. In the UK, we like a three-tiered cake to the recipe of the newly-wed’s choice.  I tell my students that a typical British wedding cake is a rich fruit cake and that it was the custom to keep the top tier to eat when the first baby was born. They cannot believe that a cake can be kept without going mouldy. Because of the high butter content, it can be stored for 6-9 months and actually improves in flavour.

WATER.

Although French tap water is purified to European standards, many people drink bottled water. I was surprised to see lead piping being replaced in the city centre. If your house is old you might find that you still have ‘plomb’ – lead, in your plumbing. That is the origin of our word.