Guest-blogger, Jack Sibley shares his experience as a Centenary Intern with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
This summer I had the fantastic opportunity to move to France for three months in order take part in a new internship programme run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Living in Arras, the site of a major British offensive itself, I was based at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme. I was part of a group of six interns based at Thiepval, whilst another group of six lived in Ypres and were based at the CWGC visitor centre near the Menin Gate and also at Tyne Cot Cemetery. Our role was primarily to greet visitors, offer short tours of the sites, share the stories of the men commemorated there and to spread word of the work that the Commission does. Due to the huge influx of visitors to the Western Fronts memorial sites during these centenary years of the First World War, we were always kept very busy. On top of our daily duties we also attended several commemoration services; the most notable of which being the events for the centenary of the battle of Passchendaele on 30 and 31 July in Belgium.
‘He is not missing; he is here.’
– Field Marshal Herbert Plumer
The quote above was famously part of Field Marshal Plumer’s speech at the inauguration ceremony of the Menin Gate on 24 July 1927. Its purpose was to provide some consolation to the gathered parents, widows, children and relatives of the missing soldiers of the Ypres battlefields; those who had fought and died but had no known grave. The sentiment which Plumer aimed at achieving that day can also be used to encapsulate the work that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does as a whole. Tasked not only with marking and maintaining all known Commonwealth graves of the First and Second World Wars, a mammoth undertaking in itself, the CWGC is also committed to commemorating those who have no grave as well. In total, the Commission commemorates 1.7 million men and women in perpetuity at 23,000 locations in 154 countries and territories. This ensures that those who paid the greatest sacrifice for their country during the two world wars will not be forgotten, both physically and in memory, they will never go ‘missing’.
In our role as interns, I like to think that we added another layer of memorialisation to our respective sites on top of what the CWGC already does. Whilst many visitors are very knowledgeable, or arrive with experienced battlefield guides, there are also many who come and have little idea of what they are looking at. Some bring faded black and white photos of a family member who is commemorated, and some arrive with little more than curiosity whilst passing on the way to their holidays. It was these people whose experience of their visit was changed by our presence. It is very easy to be so taken aback by the sheer size of these sites (Thiepval is the largest memorial to the missing in the world, whilst Tyne Cot is the CWGCs largest cemetery) that you can forget to lean in and read the thousands of names inscribed upon the memorial panels or headstones. Each man commemorated has his own story, and with a little research we were able to share these stories with every visitor who was willing to listen to them. We were a face of the Commission, giving the public the chance to interact and also share their own stories on a daily basis; something which in its hundred year history the CWGC has never had before. With another group of interns out there now until the end of November, and two more groups set to go out next year, it is a programme which I would like to see carry on far into the future.
Jack Sibley is a University of Hull graduate with a degree in 20th Century History. I have a keen interest in the First World War which was sparked by studying Dr Jenny Macleod’s ‘Britain in the First World War’ special subject module whilst in my final year. This summer I had the opportunity take part in a new internship programme run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission during its centenary year out in France and Belgium.