Rush to repair WWI cemeteries as centenary nears

By Don Melvin

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Poppy wreaths are left in front of a marble monument near the Cross of Sacrifice at Tyne Cot cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium on Monday, April 15, 2013. With nearly 12,000 graves the cemetery is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world in terms of burials. Renovations are currently underway at the cemetery to accommodate visitors for upcoming centenary events which begin in 2014.

Virginia Mayo, Associated Press

ZONNEBEKE, Belgium — The Tyne Cot cemetery sweeps gently down the slope, the nearly 12,000 headstones aligned in solemn rows of gleaming white. Beyond the walls stretch Flanders Fields, dotted by red farmhouse roofs. For the stage of some of World War I's worst carnage, the scene is tranquility itself — but over the whisper of wind floats a whine like a dentist's drill.

A closer look gives the reason for the jarring sound.

Some gravestones are chipped or cracked. A century of wind and weather has worn the surfaces so the names are hard to read. The stones are no longer perfectly aligned.

So workers are using diamond drill bits to painstakingly re-engrave stones and make the names more legible, the regimental shields more distinct. It's part of a grand effort to get the cemeteries of the British Commonwealth — and Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world — into perfect condition for the crowds expected to visit during World War I centenary commemorations that will take place between 2014 and 2018.

Nearly 100 years ago, these fields were steeped in blood and mud. Burnt trees stood like spent matches against the sky. Horses mired in muck to their haunches strained to haul wagons or guns. Men and boys in trenches watched their feet rot and their friends die.

The current works are being carried out to provide the most fitting memorial possible to such suffering, with pristine order serving as a counterpoint to the incomprehensible horror and chaos of the battlefield.

About 2,000 headstones will be replaced with new ones, identical to the originals. Those to be replaced are marked in the corner with a small red X. Another 7,000 stones will be re-engraved. The rows of stones will be realigned into geometric perfection, the landscaping trimmed and renewed.

"What we don't want are visitors coming in and then finding that they visit the headstone and the flowers aren't as they should be or there is damage on the stone," said Tony Edwards, an on-site supervisor for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In a grim coincidence, grave stones generally last 90 years or so before the names are gradually erased by time. And the 100th anniversary of the war comes just as living memory of what was then called the Great War has faded, as well. This will be the first major anniversary for which no known soldiers survive.

But those working to restore the cemeteries say interest in the war is increasing rather than diminishing. Groups of schoolchildren visit and leave messages of appreciation at the graves. Adults — alone, in couples or in groups — wander among the headstones, pausing here and there to read an inscription.

Some stones bear names and dates: "William John Dominey, 21st Bn, Canadian Infantry, 3rd/4th November 1917, Age 18."

Others stand vigil over bodies never identified: The inscription they bear says "Known unto God."

And the stone wall at the top of the cemetery has inscribed on its panels the names of 35,000 British servicemen declared missing after Aug. 15, 1917. The names of nearly 55,000 who went missing before that date are inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, in Ypres, which turned out not to be large enough to display all the names of the missing, as had first been planned.

World War I broke out July 28, 1914. The guns finally fell silent more than four years later, on Nov. 11, 1918. Ten million people are estimated to have died. Europe can expect a series of commemorations of various events and battles between 2014 and 2018.

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