Edge-trimming at a war cemetery
For David Richard this is quite a challenge, even with his team of 850 gardeners. Maintaining the gardens in England using outside contractors did not give the high level of finish and consistency needed, so using their own staff everywhere is thought to be essential.
The gravestones are kept clean, white and legible, quite unlike church headstones, which become covered in lichen with the engraving slowly dissolving. Their stones, often white Portland, are chemically treated to kill the moss. Other stone apart from Portland is now used to replace disintegrating headstones. This includes stone from Bulgaria, India and Italy.
The commission is becoming more conservation-minded and is considering whether the clean, stark look is still imperative. Where once all the grass was cut with cylinder mowers to give a strong stripe, these are being replaced with rotary mowers. To avoid grass collection, mulch mowers are being looked into where the cuttings are left in situ having been finely chopped. Picking up cuttings easily takes half as long as cutting again. Scarifying and fertilisation of the grass is rarely undertaken as it is extremely time-consuming and they find that unless you can change the structure of the soil it does not do a lot of good. Surprisingly, even after a hundred years in some places, the soil has not returned to normal structure after the massive compaction that took place in the war, especially in wet areas such as the Somme. Verti draining does help, though this uses tines to penetrate and aerate the soil.
Elsewhere, meadows and wild flowers are being used but not between the rows of graves.
The compaction and destruction of the grass by many visitors also can be a big problem. The Tyne Cot cemetery and memorial in Belgium gets up to 700,000 visitors a year, so the grass really suffers. They are researching ways to toughen the turf in collaboration with the Sports Turf Research Institute and are trying different techniques, such as reinforcing matting, putting rubber crumb substrate in with the soil and growth retardants.
In 1917, the director of Kew was on the board and it was the intention to use plants indigenous to the countries of the fallen to enhance the connection between place of origin and death. Plant material from Kew and Wisley was sent out to many places. This is no longer feasible, though certain exotic plants that are good performers are used. Olearias and eucalyptus may be used to commemorate Australians, for instance, in the Yokohama war cemetery in Japan. Acers are often used for Canadians in France, but generally plants selected have to really thrive in the area. In arid zones, such as Egypt, for example, cacti and succulents are used.
For planting borders choosing reliable plants is key and as every site is unique and different parts of the site have radically variable conditions, there is a wide range used. The headstone borders are 450mm (18in) wide, so there are miles of grass to be edged. They use edging machines (made in Australia) and edges are cut at every mowing to keep them sharp.
Care and duty: Gardeners for the CWGC chemically treat the stones
The ideal plants are indestructible: they must not need staking, they must flower for long periods and have a range of textures. Often they include a mix of alpines (frequently saxifrages) and other low plants that limit the rain splash that discolours the white headstones. Roses, usually red, repeat-flowering and compact so they do not swamp the headstones, are used frequently. Top repeat rose varieties are ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ (a great pink), ‘King Arthur’ (peach) and Remembrance, a scarlet floribunda – bred for the commission by Harkness. These are planted with mycorrhiza, routinely fertilised and sprayed to manage disease.
Good sustainable herbaceous plants are key too. For instance, phlox and arabis, Alyssum saxatile, dwarf campanulas and armerias are used in many of the Somme sites, such as Villers-Bretonneux. Other good, low- maintenance herbaceous plants for England and France include coreopsis, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and alchemillas. Sourcing these plants in far-flung places is not easy and Richardson says they used to have their own nurseries in Belgium, France, Italy and Egypt, among other places.
Weeding is a large part of the maintenance. Mulches for the narrow headstone borders migrate too much but they are used in the peripheral borders. Pre?emergent sprays of residual herbicides are frequently applied in spring. These last for about six weeks.
For borders in Turkey and other farther-flung places, they are using many indigenous plants, but this is not straightforward since these plants are difficult to obtain commercially.
The gardeners are key and they have a lot of lifers – many stay tending the graves all their lives, maintaining the high standards required. Shortly they are starting to reinstate some of Gertrude Jekyll’s original planting plans on one or two French sites, such as at Corbie La Neuville (where she worked with Lutyens). She did not have headstone borders but had scatterings of iris and narcissus informally among the stones. In the outer areas there were plantings of lavender, shrub roses and wisteria.
WAR GRAVES TO VISIT THIS YEAR
Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission gives his recommendations
The commission’s aim is that in another hundred years we will not forget all those who tragically lost their lives.
Anyone interested in visiting the war graves should start by looking at cwgc.org. Use the online searchable database to find the place of burial or commemoration for any of the 1.7?million war dead we commemorate. You can also search for cemeteries and memorials by name or country, access historical information about them and advice on how to visit them. Other significant dates this year include:
There will be an event at one of the CWGC’s most remote locations – Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery in the Orkneys – to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. Information panels at the site will use smartphone technology to reveal the personal stories of some of those commemorated.
The CWGC commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings and there will be a large event at our cemetery in Bayeux. Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest Second World War CWGC cemetery in France.
The British government will hold one of its opening events to mark the 100th anniversary commemorations of the start of the First World War at one of the CWGC’s cemeteries in Mons, Belgium.
St Symphorien Military Cemetery is highly significant as it contains an almost equal number of German and Commonwealth war dead. It also contains the first and last British and Commonwealth casualties of the war on the Western Front – Private John Parr and George Ellison respectively. Ellison was killed on November 11 1918 – the day the Armistice was signed. Ellison and Parr are buried just a few metres apart.
The cemetery also contains the graves of the first person to be awarded a Victoria Cross and the first German soldier to be awarded an Iron Cross.
Other graves to visit:
Brookwood Military Cemetery, Woking, Surrey
Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery
Oxford (Botley) Cemetery
Plymouth (Weston Mill) Cemetery
Cambridge City, Cambridge
Portsmouth Naval Memorial
Cardiff (Cathays) Cemetery
Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery, Saulty, Pas de Calais
Etaples Military Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery
And my personal favourite:
Ramparts Cemetery, Ypres