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Engraved in our minds: restoring WWI headstones

15:00 02/08/2013
As the world prepares to commemorate the First World War, workers in Flanders are busy restoring the headstones of those who fell

August 4, 1914: the beginning of the First World War. It’s a date of such gravity that it will be marked by a series of commemorative events around the world when the 100th anniversary is reached next year. The centenary will finish on November 11, 2018 – Armistice Day. Flanders, naturally, is at the heart of proceedings.

Preparations have been under way in Belgium for years for the four-year commemoration of the First World War, including a rush to restore the headstones of those who fell here. The war’s “killing fields” are these days such serene and timeless places that it seems strange to speak of speed in the same breath.

But for those involved in the painstaking restoration, the clock is well and truly ticking to get the work completed in time to mark the start of the “war to end all wars”. The anniversary comes as living memory fades of what was then called the Great War – this will be the first major anniversary for which no known soldiers survive.

Final resting place

Tyne Cot cemetery in Passchendaele held a strategic position in the war, standing in the way of Germany’s planned sweep into France from the north. Ten million people are estimated to have died in the war, at least 600,000 in Belgium, of whom at least 550,000 fell in West Flanders. More than 300,000 of these victims are buried in military cemeteries dotted around the Flemish countryside, but at least 200,000 are still missing. Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world but is just one of innumerable Commonwealth cemeteries in 153 countries.

Peter Francis, media and marketing manager for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), explains the process of re-engraving headstones. “We have teams travelling around our cemeteries engraving thousands of headstones and replacing them when they have reached the end of their useful life – about 15,000 a year at present.”

The CWGC makes new headstones in Beaurains in France, about 100km south of Ypres. Some 50 tons of stone are brought in each week. Workers fit the slabs, each weighing 80kg, on to etching machines which, guided by digital images, etch an exact copy of the original headstone – regimental shield, name, inscription – into the new stone. They are then shipped out to war cemeteries in Flanders where workers use drill bits to re-engrave stones and make the names more legible.

CWGC staff have recently replaced 33 plaques on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Each plaque bears the names of some of those who fell in the area known as Ypres Salient and have no known grave. The original plaques had become eroded, and staff at the CWGC´s northern Europe area office in Ypres believe the problem was a microclimate – a wind pattern within the stairwell where the plaques are sited.

The thickness of the new stone plaques at the Menin Gate is 75mm, compared to the originals’ thickness of 100mm. This, says Francis, will allow for an air gap and for a waterproof membrane between the back of the stones and the brick wall. The plaques are held in place with a dry fix system, using stainless steel fishtail anchors and bronze dowels between each plaque.

Back at Tyne Cot, wind and rain has worn the surfaces of the 12,000 headstones, rendering the names hard to read. Some gravestones are chipped or cracked and the stones are no longer perfectly aligned.

About 2,000 headstones will be replaced with new ones identical to the originals, with  another 7,000 being re-engraved. The rows of stones, Francis says, will be realigned into geometric perfection and the landscaping trimmed and renewed. Gravestones generally last about 90 years before the names are erased by time.

Some stones bear names and dates (“Private W. Rae. Royal Irish Fusiliers. 8 May 1915. Age 26”), while countless other bodies were never identified and the inscription they bear simply reads “Known unto God”.

“This is all part of our ongoing commitment to the fallen and perpetual remembrance of their sacrifice,” explains Francis, who is based in the UK. “For the Commission, an illegible headstone is a brave man or woman forgotten, and that is unacceptable to us. With interest in the centenary of the Great War already growing, we are doing everything we can to ensure our cemeteries and memorials are ready to receive visitors and remain a fitting tribute to the sacrifices made by those who died in the two world wars”.

But, it is not just about headstones and structures, he confirms. “Horticulture is an essential part of our commemoration of the fallen, and the Commission is probably the world’s largest horticultural operation. This involves maintaining kilometres of headstone borders and hectares of turf and trees and shrubs in just about every type of soil and in every type of climate you can think of.”

The expected influx of visitors for the commemorations will provide a major boost for the local economy, according to Stephen Lodewyck of Westtoer, the West Flanders tourism office.

Some 365,000 people visited the cemeteries last year, 52% from Belgium and the rest from overseas: mostly the UK and other Commonwealth countries. This generated about €32.5m in income for local hotels, restaurants and shops. During the centenary years, Lodewyck says, the number of visitors is expected to increase by 10 to 15%. “These events are clearly going to be very important economically for the whole region, and we expect a substantial influx of people, including many who may be unfamiliar with the First World War.

“This is also an opportunity for Flanders to showcase itself to the rest of the world. The  global spotlight will be on us next year, and I can tell you that we will be ready.”

Specific projects for the commemorations include a new visitor centre at Lyssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge and expansion of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, which was unveiled this month. There is also the new design and environmental works at Yser Museum in Diksmuide, expansion of Ypres’ In Flanders Fields Museum and the new visitor centre below the King Albert I monument in Nieuwpoort.

Meanwhile, the CWGC has also placed the first of up to 65 visitor information panels at Ypres Town Cemetery, the first of 500 being installed at cemeteries in the area as part of the commemorations.

This article first appeared in Flanders Today

Written by Martin Banks