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Explore WWI battlefields at the War Graves HQ near Arras, Northern France

IT IS not so much the ­number of graves that hits you as the number of ­cemeteries.

Some are small, such as Bethune, where we stopped for a now great, great grandfather; some are enormous, like Etaples, where thousands upon thousands more are commemorated.

This new memorial is more accessible for international visitors
At every corner in this region of France, you can appreciate the vast reach of the British Empire
The city of Arras is a must for anyone with a passing interest in history
The commission is actively involv­­ed in genealogy, helping families trace their own lost loved ones

And all are immaculate, thanks to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

This 105-year-old institution — originally the Imperial War Graves Commission — has a fascinating backstory, and you don’t need to be a history buff to get to grips with it.

A new visitor experience at the War Graves HQ near Arras, in northern France, makes it accessible to all.

Free to visit, the CWGC looks after some 3,000 cemeteries in France alone — and another 20,000 memorials and cemeteries in 150 countries worldwide.

But it does more than just preserve the past. It is actively involv­­ed in genealogy, helping families trace their own lost loved ones, and using DNA technology to investigate recent battlefield discoveries.

You can learn about all of it with an audio guide, or join a tour with one of the enthusiastic staff. Our guide Cameron overflowed with knowledge, making the story come alive. Perhaps because there is a link with his home town of Rye, in East Sussex.

The original Cross of Sacrifice — a bronze sword set in a stone cross — was designed by another Rye local, Reginald Blomfield. You can see it at St Mary’s churchyard on the Sussex coast.

Blomfield was one of a team of designers and intellectuals who shaped the way we think about remembrance today. Among them was Edwin Lutyens, best known for the Cenotaph on Whitehall.



Architect Max Gill provided the distinctive font and author Rudyard Kipling contributed “Their name liveth for evermore”, taking inspiration from the Bible.

Even the choice of plants was carefully considered — experts at the Botanical Gardens in Kew advised on horticultural design. Whether the war itself was fought with such wisdom is a question that will keep historians debating for ever.

But whatever your take on this, the city of Arras itself is a must for anyone with a passing interest in history.

Beautiful as it is today, with a cathedral and medieval town square preserving secrets aplenty, it was in turmoil by 1916 when controlled by British forces.

Astonishing feats

The Battle of Arras initially took a huge bite from the German line, but ultimately ended in stale- mate with combined casualties of nearly 300,000.

This lesson is best learned at the nearby Wellington Quarry, which illustrates one of the most astonishing feats of the Great War.

Here, tunnellers excavated thousands of tonnes of limestone be­neath the city, joining up with pits and caves dating to Roman times.

Starting in 1916, they dug more than ten miles of tunnels, which eventually housed 24,000 men — secretly waiting for battle.

Much of the work was done by New Zealand troops, who named the network Wellington after their capital.

At every corner in this region of France, you can appreciate the vast reach of the British Empire, but not always in a triumphal sense.

One of the key tasks back at the CWGC is to improve the provision of memorials for African and Indian servicemen, who were unfairly overlooked in the last century. Just another reminder that history is never settled.

With the passing of our dear Queen, this Remembrance Sunday will be like no other.

But the full story truly does live forever — in a foreign field, not too far from these shores.

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