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The CWGC Experience

The CWGC Experience, Beaurains, France

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By Rory Ngah, Commonwealth War Graves Foundation intern, August 28 2019

The CWGC Experience is a unique new visitor attraction that will shine a light on the work of the remarkable organisation at the heart of remembrance of the war dead. The CWGC Experience gives visitors an up close and intimate look behind the scenes at the teams who still work painstakingly to care for the fallen.

Perhaps the most poignant part of any pilgrimage to the Western Front is a visit to one or more of the thousands of cemeteries and memorials that dot its now peaceful landscape. With their long rows of white Portland headstones, surrounded by flowers reminiscent of quiet English gardens, they bear testament to the enormous sacrifice made by the Allied Armies during the Great War.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), on behalf of Commonwealth nations, is responsible for these impeccably maintained sites. Established in 1917, the CWGC cares for 1.7 million fallen servicemen in over 160 different countries, engaging in what the poet Rudyard Kipling termed as “The biggest single bit of work since the Pharaohs… and they only worked in their own country!”

Having historically played the role of quiet custodians, this year the Commission has taken the unprecedented step of opening a new visitors’ centre, The CWGC Experience. Based at its workshops near Arras, it is a truly unique site, seeking not to provide a commentary on the war, but rather to offer deep, behind-the-scenes insight into the organisation’s ongoing work worldwide.

With free entry, and complimentary parking for vehicles with fewer than 12 occupants, visitors can view the master craftspeople at work, watching the stonemasons, blacksmiths and carpenters produce everything from Swords of Sacrifice to cemetery signs. They can also visit the Headstone Production Unit, which is responsible for engraving the gravestones and memorial panels present in each of the 23,000 sites worldwide, from Pheasant Wood at Fromelles to Ley War Cemetery in Papua New Guinea. As such, they can witness first-hand the thousands of small labours of love that ensure our fallen servicemen across the globe continue to rest peacefully.

What is more, directed by an informative audio guide, guests can visit a range of installations, looking at the work carried out by the CWGC’s maintenance and gardening teams. Featuring the voices of our craftspeople, listeners learn not only of the challenges that they face on a daily basis, but also the pride that they take in their work, and why, over a century since the end of the Great War, they still see it as important.

The CWGC Experience also focuses on one of the most moving aspects of the organisation’s work, the recovery and reburial of missing servicemen. With over forty sets of remains being discovered each year, its dedicated team, working alongside the member governments, labours tirelessly to bring out clues that will help identify each individual to the greatest possible degree, ensuring that they are buried with honour alongside their comrades. Showcasing some of the artefacts that have been recovered with these men, as well as outlining the process, this exhibition demonstrates both the variety of roles played by the CWGC and its ongoing global commitment in the 21st Century.

The Great War has now passed beyond the realms of living memory. As such its memorials now play a more important role than ever in commemorating the sacrifice made on our behalf. Providing a deep insight into their creation and continuing maintenance, The CWGC Experience is a must see for anyone making a visit to the Western Front.

Open Monday to Friday, 1st February – 30th November, 10am-4pm.

Closed on French bank holidays (except 11th November).

www.cwgc.org/visit-us

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