Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30

I am a great admirer of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It was set up in 1917, and recognises some 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. The Commission has constructed 2,500 war cemeteries and plots, erecting headstones over graves and where the remains are missing, inscribing the names of the dead on permanent memorials. The Commission's principles are that each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial, that these should be permanent, that headstones should be uniform, and that there should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.

I have visited several WW2 cemeteries in Thailand and a number of WW1 cemeteries in France. I am always very moved, but also impressed by how well kept and maintained they are.

Last December, I found my way to this (relatively) small cemetery - the Maroc British Cemetery, in the village of Grenay, not far from Bethune.

The cemetery was begun by French troops in August 1915, but it was first used as a Commonwealth cemetery by the 47th (London) Division in January 1916. During the greater part of the war it was a front-line cemetery used by fighting units and field ambulances, and protected from German observation by a slight rise in the ground.

The Maroc British Cemetery now contains 1,379 Commonwealth burials and commemorations from the First World War. 264 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 89 casualties known to be buried among them. The cemetery also contains 45 French and German burials.

It is somewhat sobering to see one's own name on a headstone. Section I, row J, plot 45 holds the grave of Sapper Robert Cowan, of the Royal Engineers, who was serving with the 1st (Lowland) Field Company. He died today, June 30, 1916.

Robert was my father's older brother. He would have been my uncle. It's his name I was given when I was born all these years later.

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