x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Careful developments designed to cherish the memory of the fallen

Even on the most conservative estimates, 55 million service personnel and civilians died in the two world wars of the 20th century.

Even on the most conservative estimates, 55 million service personnel and civilians died in the two world wars of the 20th century.

Reflecting on tragedy on such a scale, it might be considered unseemly to link mass suffering of the past to the economic well-being of the present. The French daily newspaper Le Figaro used the phrase "the incredible craze for memorial sites" to sum up the powerful role of this branch of war tourism.

But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), formed before the First World War ended to ensure the final resting places of military dead would never be forgotten, takes an entirely positive view.

It sees the encouragement of visits to the cemeteries of the fallen, the sites where they fought and the museums commemorating them as the surest way of reminding the world of the human cost of conflict.

Similar thoughts inspire equivalent bodies from other countries, and from the losing as well as winning sides of war. The United States has the American Battle Monuments Commission; many Germans honour their dead through the work of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge - the German War Graves Commission.

"Only by doing what we can to see that these places are visited can we keep the memory of the sacrifice, and the names, alive for future generations," says Peter Francis, spokesman for the CWGC, which looks after the graves of 1.7 million British, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and Indian soldiers at 23,000 sites in 153 countries.

Mr Francis remembers standing in awe as a 13-year-old at the Tyne Cot war cemetery in the Flanders region of Belgium, honouring those who died in the area around the town of Ypres in the First World War.

But it is no longer enough to provide the graveyards and ensure they are kept in good order.

"Modern visitors are more sophisticated," says Mr Francis. They expect travel, accommodation and other services to be available and smoothly organised, he says, and want more from the experience of visiting a cemetery than the opportunity to inspect well-tended graves.

Without breaching its annual budget, currently £60 million (Dh335.15m) contributed by the six component Commonwealth nations with the United Kingdom paying the lion's share, the commission has embarked on a major programme of adding interpretative facilities at 500 of its sites. Full information explaining what the soldiers who died were doing at each location, and why, is accompanied by smartphone technology giving access to the personal stories of some of the individuals.

The programme of installation is moving steadily towards the target of completion by 2016, when another important centenary occurs. The Battle of the Somme, regarded as one of history's bloodiest engagements, was fought by the soldiers of the British and French armies against German forces between July and November 1916. More than a million men from both sides were killed or wounded.

Almost 100 years later, the battlefields of France and Belgium continue to yield human and material relics of the fighting.

Farmers ploughing fields and locals and visitors wandering in the countryside stumble on the remains of an average of 16 casualties each year and unexploded ordnance is occasionally located by French and Belgian army units. Battlefield tours form a big part of the tourist services provided in such areas as the Somme.

The commission has also squeezed four years' maintenance work into 18 months to ensure people visiting its sites during next year's milestone commemorations do not see scaffolding and other eyesores indicating unfinished work.

It is a far cry from the rudimentary way in which military memorials were once run. The Thiépval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, in northern France, which also remembers the Anglo-French element of one of history's most momentous battles, has a state-of-the-art visitors' centre with illustrated narrative, film screenings and computers storing information on the British and Commonwealth dead in both world wars.

But before the centre opened in 2004, the memorial had little beyond remembrance to offer.

"There was nothing to explain what happened in 1916. There wasn't even a lavatory," Sir Frank Sanderson, a Royal British Legion branch chairman who set up the charity to finance the improvements, said at the time.

The growing interest in visiting such locations as Thiépval or the D-Day beaches of Normandy suggests that as well as preserving and explaining history to successive generations, the network of memorials is generating much-needed benefits to the economies of regions where so many people fought and died.