Tending graves at Bény-sur-Mer
The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery sits atop a rise with a distant view of Juno Beach, which you can hear at high tide if the wind is right and there are no passing cars. The air is fresh and sweet after a night’s rain, but Graham Ford is kicking himself. “We should be treating headstones,” he says, looking up at the sun. “Because of the weather, we’ve had to change plans.” A fellow gardener toils in the background, trimming turf edges, weeding, removing plants that didn’t overwinter well.
Ford has tended cemeteries in France for more than twenty-five years, starting each day’s work at precisely 8 a.m. As a teenager in England, he chanced upon a book about Vimy Ridge and became obsessed with the world wars. At twenty-six, he answered an advertisement in a landscaping journal for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and landed a gardening position at Arras, less than ten kilometres from the Vimy battlefield. Today he has a French wife and daughter, and what he considers the perfect job: “Working here is a combination of history and horticulture. It’s most interesting, most gratifying.”
At fifty-four, his appearance is not quite as perfect as the grounds he keeps. His rough hands reveal a lifetime spent outdoors. His boots are muddy. His greying hair fades into red sideburns, and a small amount of stubble is well on this side of charming. The spry, apple-cheeked groundskeeper claims that he lost his Liverpool accent years ago from moving around France so often, but you can still hear northern England in his measured yet playful voice.
During the Normandy invasion, Bény-sur-Mer served as a field dressing station; many soldiers are buried near where they died. The 2,049 tombstones, iconically shaped and made of alabaster Portland limestone, have identical engravings: A maple leaf (with the exception of a single Frenchman). Unit, rank, name, age. A religious emblem, such as a cross or a Star of David. An epitaph chosen by the family—some personal, some poetic, some blank.
The cemetery was consecrated in 1946, its planners having done the math on aesthetic perfection. They placed the graves in precise, symmetrical rows that radiate into multiple vanishing points, and arranged them in sixteen plots to form a square, each plot with eight rows of sixteen. Then they placed the Cross of Sacrifice at the centre, like a watchful king amid his pawns. They even predetermined the length of the grass for generations of gardeners to come. The distance from the turf to the top of each headstone should be eighty-one centimetres, Ford says by way of example, “no more, no less.” Such exactitude seems to thrill him.
They arranged the plants symmetrically, too, with a rose at every other grave, offset by an iris or other herbaceous perennial. At the end of each row, “terminal plants” protect the headstones from being chipped by debris thrown from lawn mowers, while “anti-splash” varieties keep the mud down when it rains. Each row is replanted every five years on a rotating basis, to keep the grounds looking pristine. Recently, the commission replaced the markers. “The inscriptions were so pitted you could hardly read them,” says Ford. “You might not think so, but these headstones are very fragile. If you knock one, it’ll just go down like a domino.”
Occasionally, there is vandalism (during the Iraq War, someone scrawled “English Go Home” across the Stone of Remembrance at one Commonwealth cemetery, and swastikas deface crosses from time to time), but most visitors are respectful. “You see them wandering up and looking at particular headstones,” he explains. “They quite often come and ask questions, or they place wreaths and small crosses. We leave those for about three weeks, but once they start looking tatty we have to gather them up.” There is no official policy on what to do with mementoes; they are usually kept in a box somewhere on site, in case a family member visits or inquires.
Ford is good natured, and it’s difficult to imagine him being bothered by anything, but even he has not grown immune to working on hallowed ground. His ties to this area run deep. His father served in World War II as armoured reconnaissance, and both his uncle and his father’s cousin are buried at Bayeux, twenty kilometres west: “My uncle was in the Black Watch. I just love the inscription on his headstone: ‘He was a truly perfect, gentle knight.’ It’s written in Middle English—comes from Chaucer.”
Throwing some trimmed turf off to one side, he describes Étaples, a French town of 11,000 on the English Channel and home to one of the largest Commonwealth cemeteries. “There are about as many people living there as dead,” he observes. “You look at the grounds when you first come in, and you think, bloody hell. You start there”—gesturing to his left and swinging his arm 180 degrees to the right—“and finish there. You might just be using a wheelbarrow transporting dead flowers, but you do look, and you see some of the inscriptions and the ages on the tombs. It’s the ages,” he says, pointing at the graves before him. “Twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty-one. At twenty-one, you’re a boy, aren’t you? You’ve probably never really lived at all.”
Ford takes one more look at Bény before heading off to the Ranville cemetery, to weed and turf its borders. His eye catches something, and he walks toward the grave of Private Richard Joseph Drouillard, eighteen. “Look at this,” he says, bending down and picking up a President’s Choice jar stripped of its label. He unscrews the lid and pulls out a toy soldier, along with a letter dated April 3, 2013. Moisture has faded the bottom half, and the author’s name is illegible. Written in a feminine hand, it addresses the fallen soldier from Windsor, Ontario: “In history class at school, we learn about world wars and the men and women who fought them, sacrificing themselves for the freedom of the future. But we don’t learn about the personalities, faces and families of these troops or how much they meant to others. I want to thank you so much for your bravery and sacrifice in World War 2.” Along with the note, the jar contains a dream catcher—to keep nightmares at bay, the writer explains.
He pauses before returning the contents. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he says. The veteran groundskeeper closes the lid and replaces the jar, letting it stay at the base of Private Drouillard’s headstone for a little while longer.
This appeared in the June 2014 issue.