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Gardening Then and Now A century of passion for plants

Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is one of the world’s largest horticultural organisations – employing more than 850 gardeners worldwide who, collectively, care for cemetery gardens from the tropics of Asia to the deserts of North Africa.

But who created these gardens of remembrance and why? How does CWGC care for them? What does it take to be a CWGC gardener? And what role do these gardens play in commemorating the war dead?

In Gardening Then and Now we shine a light on this vital aspect of CWGC’s work by looking at the stories of some of our former staff and their modern-day counterparts – as well as asking what has changed or stayed the same over 100 years of gardening excellence.

Growing Pains

When the guns fell silent on 11 November 1918 the world did not enter a period of peace and stability. Against a backdrop of global unrest a remarkable group of individuals, the staff of the fledgling CWGC, chose to stay on and live and work in the devastated post-war landscape.

The first wave of gardeners set about the task of commemorating their comrades even as the final death toll continued to climb.

Through adversity they created one of the world’s most recognisable forms of remembrance and set standards we continue to strive for and deliver today.

Here are some of their remarkable stories.

Robert Armstrong

The Soldier and gardener who defied the Nazis

Almost all of the CWGC’s first gardeners were ex-soldiers. Former Irish Guards Lance Sergeant, Robert Armstrong, was among them.

Robert hailed from County Longford in Ireland and was a gardener before the war, working in both Limerick and Dublin. He joined the Imperial War Graves Commission on 9 June 1920 and was initially sent to Belgium before he was eventually sent to Valenciennes in France and promoted to Head Gardener.

Photograph of IWGC staff interned at St. Denis Prison Camp, France, in 1944. Private collection, With kind permission of family of IWGC Gardener Charlie Crouch (standing furthest right in photo)

While working at Valenciennes, Robert was presented with a medal from the townsfolk in recognition of his work and the friendly and courteous relations with the town officials.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent invasion of France by Germany in May 1940, Robert found himself overtaken by events and unable to evacuate. As an Irish citizen he was allowed to continue work; tending his graves and attending the burials of Allied airmen from the current conflict.

Back in Ireland, Robert’s father and siblings became increasingly concerned. It wasn’t until early 1941 that they heard from him, but by 1944 rumours began to circulate of Robert’s death.

The CWGC began to investigate and discovered that Robert had continued to work at Valenciennes until November 1943, when he was arrested for “striking a German who kicked flowers placed on graves by French ladies”. He was further suspected of aiding Allied soldiers and airmen to escape, and was sentenced to be shot, although this was later commuted to 15 years confinement in a German fortress.

Robert ended up at the prison fortress of Diez-Hess. Here, fellow inmates later testified that he was brutally assaulted by a guard in July 1944. He received only rudimentary medical treatment and subsequently died on 16 December 1944, having been transferred to Waldheim Camp, in Saxony, Germany.

Proposed memorial panel design for Robert Armstrong for Valenciennes Communal Cemetery, drawn by H.E.J., April 1948

After the war, his friends among the citizens of Valenciennes, raised a subscription for a memorial to Robert and approached the CWGC for permission to erect it in Valenciennes Communal Cemetery. The request was approved and the plaque was unveiled by the Mairie of Valenciennes on Sunday 11 July 1948, in the presence of Robert’s brother and sisters, where it remains to this day.

Tasman Millington

The Outsider

Tasman Millington, a native of Tasmania, joined the Imperial War Graves Commission on 7 September 1919 as a clerk, based in Gallipoli, Turkey.

Following a stint as Boatswain and Motor Launch Driver (not a typical role with CWGC) Tasman would rise to become Area Superintendent for the entire Eastern District. From 1928 he was in sole charge of the cemeteries and memorials on Gallipoli, and would ultimately spend more than 40 years working to maintain them in what could be very difficult circumstances.

Members of the Graves Registration Unit searching for remains at Browns Dip, Gallipoli, February 1919

After serving during the First World War, Tasman went to Gallipoli as part of the IWGC team to construct permanent cemeteries and recover (and where possible) identify remains.

Photos of CWGC sites, staff and a group of pilgrims arriving in Gallipoli, Turkey.

The local conditions required the CWGC to adapt its template for cemetery construction. Pedestal grave markers were favoured over headstones due to the risk of earthquake, and a more discreet Cross of Sacrifice, embedded into the walls of some cemeteries, was chosen in what was a predominantly Muslim country. The difficult climatic conditions made caring for the cemeteries challenging but Tasman’s staff (a mix of Turks and White Russians exiled members of the anti-Bolshevik forces) got the job done and respected him – affectionately calling him Millington Bey.

Equally delicate, at times, were relations with the Turkish authorities, but here Tasman excelled with his optimistic outlook and knowledge of the language. “By his firmness and tact he…succeeded in creating and maintaining excellent relationships with the Turkish authorities and with all with whom he has been brought into contact.”

The fact that he was an Australian helped. On one occasion, when the Commission was accused of preventing local farmers from using fields adjoining the cemeteries for grazing their sheep, the CWGC was able to respond by stating that ‘as Australians in charge we are delighted to see sheep roaming around as it gives us a feeling of home’!

NZ No.2 Outpost Cemetery, Anzac, with a Graves Registration Unit camp in the background

As travel to Gallipoli was beyond the reach of most, Tasman and his wife sent a piece of Gallipoli back home to Australia in the form of a parcel of “historic earth” and a bundle of wild flowers.

Tasman was awarded an O.B.E. in 1934 and eventually retired in 1961. He died on 10 December 1963 and is buried in Sidcup Cemetery, Kent

He was survived by his son, who was baptised Bernard Anzac Millington on 25 April 1922 at Anzac Cove and served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

David Cruickshank

aka Mademoiselle Louise

David Cruickshank must have one of the most remarkable backstories of any CWGC employee.

David, a native of Glasgow, served in the 1st Battalion The Cameronians during the First World War. He fought at Mons and Le Cateau, but became trapped behind German lines when he was wounded and separated from his unit.

He spent the next two and a half years in hiding, after a French woman, Madame Julie Celeste Baudhuin, concealed him in her house at considerable personal risk.

David spent most of his time hidden indoors but as time wore on he occasionally ventured outside, disguised as ‘Mademoiselle Louise’! He was sometimes accompanied by one of Madame Julie’s neighbours, a young woman called Aimee, who would one day become David's wife. David's luck eventually ran out in September 1916 when he was discovered by the Germans during a house search.

Initially suspected of spying and sentenced to death, David’s sentence was commuted, and he spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner of war camp.

After the war, David joined the IWGC and was employed as an assistant gardener, based in Le Cateau. He spent 3 years working on the cemeteries before leaving to begin a new life with his wife in Paris.

Francis Boyes Grinham

The Professional

At the end of the First World War, bringing order to the thousands of war cemeteries was a unique challenge. To realise its vision, the CWGC recruited Horticultural Officers, each assigned to a specific area or group of cemeteries, who would ensure that the overall horticultural vision was enacted by the gardeners on the ground. These officers were invariably trained horticulturalists and had a professional understanding of the tasks facing the CWGC.

One such was Francis Grinham, who had a specific interest and knowledge of shrubs and trees, and had been on the staff of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Upon the outbreak of the war he joined the Middlesex Regiment and saw service in France and Belgium, before joining the IWGC in November 1918.

As one of the first CWGC staff to be sent to France and Belgium, he experienced first-hand some of the discomforts and difficulties facing the fledgling organisation and its personnel. Many years later, his wife, Margaret, would recall their first winter and how the family became involved in her husband’s work.

“My husband and I went out with our little daughter Philippa in September 1918(19)? I think. We lived in a Nissen hut in the camp....The first winter was so cold we used to warm the cutlery handles in hot water or our fingers stuck to the metal.

“I remember so well going out in a lorry with my husband and Philippa to find isolated graves and Philippa very often spotted them before we did and she'd say ‘eres one Daddy’.”

Drawing of recommendation for headstone border planting, by ‘Rhetoric’ (Alfred Bertram Melles), 1924

In those early years, the horticultural treatment of the cemeteries could vary considerably. So, in 1924, the Chief Horticultural Officer, Captain J.S. Parker, wrote to all the Horticultural Officers with a proposal to adopt a ‘certain method of decoration’ in the cemeteries. Each was invited to write a paper and to submit them anonymously to be judged.

The nine essays were submitted under code names, such as ‘Sweet Pea’, and ‘Rhetoric’, but we know Francis was the author of the winning proposal – ‘An Idea’. He suggested that ‘roses and hardwoods should be used as extensively as possible’, and that, ‘massed effects should generally be aimed at’ and ‘overcrowded planting should be avoided’. He stressed that the different variations in soil, climate and aspect, as well temperature, rainfall and even the density of the headstones need to be borne in mind, and somewhat tongue in cheek also reminded the judges that ‘the architect seems to think he must be appeased’.

Today, we follow a standard approach not that dissimilar to the one suggested almost a century ago. Francis remained with the CWGC until his retirement in 1956.

Charles Atkin

The Digger

A native of Yorkshire, Charles had emigrated to Australia by the time the First World War broke out. Wishing to do his part, he joined the Australian Imperial Force on 3 December 1914. He served in Egypt, where he suffered an injury to his nose after being thrown from a horse, Gallipoli and France, where he was again injured, suffering a wound to the head in August 1917.

Charles survived the war and returned to Australia in 1919 but he came back to France to work with the Commission. It is likely that Charles was at least partly motivated out of a sense of duty to his fallen comrades. We say partly because he also had a more personal motive for returning – a French girl named Alix that he met while recovering from his head injury in 1917. Whatever the truth, he returned to France and married Alix on 14 June 1921 in Amiens, becoming one of the many IWGC gardeners who would put down permanent roots in the lands where they had served.

Charles took up his position as a gardener with the IWGC on 28 April 1922, working at Villers-Bretonneux. The location, synonymous with Australian service and sacrifice on the Western Front, would become his “home” for the next 40 years.

Following the construction of the memorial in 1938, Charles was seconded to the Australian Government as its caretaker. His expanded role included meeting and escorting visitors around the memorial.

Extract concerning damaged to Villers Bretonneux during the Second World War, from Report of IWGC Controller's visit to Belgium and France, 12th to 25th July 1945

One particular encounter from August 1938 has survived in the CWGC archive in the form of a letter written by the unknown ‘A Londoner’. The correspondent wrote to draw attention to the ‘vast number of “trippers” of all sorts’ who were coming to the memorial, and was particularly upset with ice cream sellers. “The gardener told me he had told the ice-cream man six times to go further away but as soon as his back was turned they came back. Mr Atkin has… no-one at the entrance to keep the “gens mal elopes” in order.”

Ice cream sellers were to be the least of Charles’ problems in the coming years, for with the outbreak of the Second World War, he had to leave his beloved memorial and evacuate his family to England.

Layout plan of the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, showing the approach path, terrace and finished levels.

The memorial and cemetery suffered considerable damage during the war (the memorial was used as an observation post by the French Army and suffered from shell and mortar fire), and when the site could eventually be visited in October 1944, it was found that over 1000 headstones in the cemetery had been damaged, of which ‘approximately 500 had disappeared altogether’.

Charles returned to Villers-Bretonneux in 1946, to restore and maintain the site and he remained in his post as caretaker of the memorial until his retirement in 1961.

Harry

Cambridge

Former Colour Sergeant Wayne Harrod, or Harry as he likes to be known, cares for more than 1,000 war graves at Cambridge City Cemetery where his work for CWGC has given him a new lease of life. Harry has since gone on to represent GB and win medals at the Invictus Games.

Here’s Harry’s story…

Burak Gundogan

Gallipoli

Burak Gundogan is CWGC’s Country Supervisor in Turkey. Both he and his CWGC forebear, Tasman Millington, started as office administrators – Burak in 2012 and Tasman in 1919. Burak is proud to work with CWGC as both his great grandfathers fought at Gallipoli and lost their lives. “As a local I always admired the work of the Commission and wanted to be a part of it, so it is a great honour to be here.”

“The most exciting thing is, you never know what each day has in store. Every day is a new challenge and my work is 24/7. One day I can be on site in the wilderness of Gallipoli and the next in the office writing emails and letters, meeting deadlines, managing enquiries and liaising with local authorities.

“There is a shared passion by all those who maintain our cemeteries and memorials; I have met many colleagues around the world and whenever we sit together the subject never changes - it is always about what we do and how we do it.

“The conditions of Gallipoli have not changed much since Tasman’s time in that the ground is unstable, weather conditions are extreme, there are no water resources and the access roads to our cemeteries are still a big challenge.

“I am proud of what I am doing, and I am proud of what my staff are doing. They really work hard and when we hear compliments it makes our day. I feel proud when I meet a visitor who says we are doing a great job and especially proud because we keep memories alive and remind people of the sacrifices made. My biggest challenge is to keep the standards as high as my predecessors.”

Gautier Francois

Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery and Memorial, France.

In 2003 Gautier did a years’ work experience with CWGC at Ecoivres Military Cemetery before joining us permanently at Villers-Bretonneux in 2012.

“I enjoyed the work experience at the cemeteries which confirmed this was what I wanted to do. I studied horticulture and the CWGC was always been my first choice of employer because of its superior maintenance standards.

“Being from Villers-Bretonneux and attending the Victoria school (partly rebuilt after the war with Australian support) I have always known about the Commonwealth losses in the region. On every road, bar one to the town, there is a CWGC cemetery.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Gautier’s work and that of his predecessor, Charles Atkin, is that Gautier is part of a mobile group – responsible for multiple cemeteries rather than just one site.

“A typical day will start with mowing and edging the borders before weeding and cutting any dead bloom, cleaning the register box and checking the register and visitors’ book. Once done, we will move onto the next cemetery and start the sequence again.”

The biggest change Gautier’s seen has been the use of mulching – returning fine clippings to the lawn rather than collecting – and climate. “We seem to be getting much longer, dryer spells for which our turf needs to be well prepared to resist scorching or dying.”

Like most CWGC staff, he is passionate about the job he does.

“I am particularly proud of the work on the Villers-Bretonneux cemetery frontage. This was an enormous task with tens of thousands of shrubs and it was very satisfying to have participated in such an excellent job.

“The appreciation from many visitors who often thank us for doing our duties is very motivating indeed.”

Richard Price

Etaples Military Cemetery

Richard Price followed in his father’s footsteps when he joined the CWGC in 1983 as an assistant gardener. Today he is the Senior Head Gardener of the Boulogne sector, which includes Etaples Military Cemetery – the largest CWGC cemetery in France.

“Dad worked his way up the CWGC from gardener to district inspector and manager in Turkey – so it’s in our blood! I was really pleased to get a full-time job with CWGC. I enjoyed it right from the beginning and every time I walk into a cemetery I remember that these people fought for our country.

“I have worked in different areas including the Somme, Normandy and Egypt and have worked as Horticultural Training Officer and Head Gardener before becoming Senior Head Gardener. There have been quite a lot of changes in my time here, the main difference being more machines, but the standards are the same.

“Facilities were rudimentary back in the day. Gardeners used to sit in small sheds or ’mess rooms’ for lunch with a log burner in the corner. We had to keep repairing chimneys to make sure the smoke went outside instead of inside! Mobile phones didn’t exist, and we would get post, not emails. Today we have base sites with vans, tools, mess rooms, showers and toilet facilities.

“At Etaples we have 13 staff; the youngest is 24 and the oldest is 64. Our day starts with a quick meeting and our hours change to fit in with the different seasons and daylight hours. Our two biggest challenges are keeping on top of everything and the weather. We had the ‘Beast from East’ storm in 2018 but this spring was completely different. We look after 33,000 graves with 12,000 at Etaples and 7.5km of borders to maintain.

“I still take enormous pride in what I do and enjoy talking to veterans. It’s like seeing old mates. They tell their life stories but unfortunately they are becoming fewer but we get more schools now which is great.”

The Family

The Jaradah family and Gaza War Cemetery

One of the more challenging locations where CWGC cares for war graves is our cemetery in Gaza, and yet anyone fortunate enough to visit would be impressed by its beauty and the obvious care that goes into its maintenance.

The credit goes to one remarkable family – the Jaradahs – who for four generations have tended this place, protected it and even used it to educate new generations about the importance of remembrance and the lessons of conflict.

While there are a number of staff who have a long CWGC lineage – some colleagues have more than 50 years of experience and may even be the third generation of their family to work for us – the site in Gaza is unique in that its history is so closely linked to one family.

Ibrahim, the youngest member of the family says; “I’m a son of the cemetery. I’ve grown up with these men.”

The cemetery dates from the First World War and operations against the Ottoman forces in the area. Today, it contains more than 3,600 burials.

Each generation of the family have passed on their passion and knowledge. Given the difficulty in sending regular supplies into Gaza, the team have learnt to innovate and have their own nursery – using a century of knowledge to grow jasmine, bougainvillea and chrysanthemums that thrive in the climate.

On occasion, the cemetery has become embroiled in the ongoing politics and conflict of the region but the Jaradahs have stood firm and even protected their beloved cemetery from harm.

Today, Ibrahim is pleased to see the hundreds of school children who visit the site each month. They come for various reasons but always leave with one of his history lessons ringing in their ears!

A Century of Gardening

Harry reflects on what it would like to be a gardener then and now.

The CWGC Template

During the First World War, attempts were made to make the temporary burial grounds less bleak. Consultants from Kew advised those first IWGC gardeners on plants and soil – a friendly and professional association that continues to this day.

It was clear from those earliest days that planting in the cemeteries was important. It gave the site a cared for appearance and reinforced that these were places for the living as well as the dead. It showed respect to those commemorated and was of comfort to relatives. And as the CWGC’s thinking on the form of commemoration developed, it also became clear that planting would soften the look of masonry and landscape – helping cemeteries to blend with their surroundings.

Through the influence of principal architect Edwin Lutyens, horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll and artistic advisor Frederic Kenyon, the look and feel of a CWGC cemetery, so familiar to us today, took shape.

Our early staff, many of whom had worked professionally as gardeners before the war and all of whom had served in some capacity, were creating gardens out of a devastated landscape. Our cemeteries became horticultural oases in a war-torn landscape.

Today, those gardens are as important to our commemoration of the dead as when they were established. The mature gardens provide shelter and form but also create an atmosphere that promotes remembrance.

Caring for them is a dedicated workforce of more than 850 gardeners, who between them have thousands of years of collective gardening expertise. Our gardeners are craftsman and technicians – combining artistic skills and creative flair with practical horticultural know-how. They adhere to a set of standards but use the knowledge, expertise and experience they have gained to achieve the desired effect. Effectively, they ensure we use the right plant for the right space and we adapt our horticultural approach to suit local climate, soil and availability of water.

There is a rhythm to planting in our sites – low plants in front headstones to prevent soil splash, roses in between – and a rhythm to the cemetery’s appearance during the seasons – lines of colour in the height of summer, with perhaps a more stark experience during the depths of winter.

The sheer scale of our gardening commitment is impressive – we measure borders in kilometres and mow the equivalent of almost 1,000 football pitches every week.

But no matter the size of cemetery, each flower, each tree, each blade of grass is cared for with a passion that typifies our staff and our approach to commemorating the war dead. Today, Tomorrow and Forever.

Photos and images are taken from the CWGC’s archive. We’d also like to thank Dr Jacqui Donegan, from the Office of Australian War Graves, for her help with Charles Atkin's story, the Cruickshank family for their help and photos, and the Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre for help with Tasman Millington's story.

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