This is the second article in a series of 3 about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Tomorrow will focus on engraving. The War Graves Commission is staging an Open Day this Saturday, at the Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons (10am-4pm).
"This cemetery is a hidden treasure", says Sanna Joutsijoki of the CWGC when we enter the Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. It is situated within the city of Ieper, but is not attracting the big crowds like other, better known war sites. It's early May and the grass has been mown. The headstones are facing colourful flowers and plants. No weeds can be seen in the sand beds.
We meet Geert De Ruddere, who has been working for the Commission as a gardener for 34 years. Geert is a "static", a term refers to the fact that he is working fulltime on the same cemetery, and that he is not working for one of the mobile teams that travel around the area to meet the horticultural challenges.
"I don't live far from here. This kind of work makes it my second garden. (...) Can you hear the silence? It's very quiet here. This environment brings peace and quiet and takes away the stress. I hope visitors can enjoy it as much as I do."
A set of basic rules
Don't just say "this flower" or "this plant" to the specific types brightening up the cemetery. Geert knows them all by their Latin name. There is a hidden strategy behind the choice of the plants and the planting itself. Anti-splash plants should make sure the headstones don't become spoiled with earth when it's raining hard. This type of plant doesn't grow high to leave room for the headstone.
Other flowers and plants in between the headstone, can grow higher. Gardeners should also make sure they display a wide array of colours.
There are 4 types of each category. Plants and flowers are being replaced every 5 years. "This means that every year, 20 percent is being replaced. This happens in winter. That's actually one of my favourite seasons, because you can be creative at that stage."
The English touch
English gardens have served as an inspiration to the CWGC sites in Belgium. "A wide variety, both in colour and blossoming time, is one of the key elements", Geert explains. The task of a CWGC gardener requires expertise. New gardeners always receive a specific training, regardless of any other horticultural studies. There is a specific set of rules to be respected.
Geert enjoys the work at "his" cemetery. He is proud of how it looks after a day's work. "You need to have an eye for detail. I like this. This is not about working fast. Everything here is being done properly." Things should look good, if not perfect, full stop. No excuses.
On the other hand, he is glad to be able to do something back for those that perished in the war. "This is an extra incentive. And yes, while I am working, I enjoy the peaceful and quiet surroundings."
"It started 5 years ago"
We meet Senior Head Gardener Frank Colson and Head Gardener Jeffrey Ketels at Bedford House Cemetery south of Ieper. Its size and history make this another stunning site.
Frank and Jeffrey steer a mobile team of 15 gardeners and are responsible for some 20 cemeteries in the area. These are busy times as the teams are making an extra effort ahead of the remembrance ceremonies. Everything should look perfect.
Franky confirms that working schedules are being adapted to have everything ready. He adds that the surge in visitor numbers started some 5 years ago. "We have noticing an increasing number of tourists on the grounds for some years."
The group of gardeners is a happy bunch. They willingly accept Frank's suggestion to come over for a group picture. Although it's a very windy day, the sun is out and the dark clouds in the background make a nice contrast with the white headstones and monuments on the site.
This is a special place, like many other cemeteries, but this one enjoys a special position in the empty landscapes surrounding it, and has a particular history as it was situated almost on the frontline. It's hard to imagine this was once a quiet place with a simple castle and park - who could have known which dramatic turn for the worse was coming up?
About the sites
Ypres Reservoir Cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield and includes 2,613 graves of Commonwealth soldiers that perished in the First World War. It's also the final resting place of one German soldier. The site covers 1.2 hectares and was located in the notorious Ypres Salient during the Great War. The first bodies were brought here in 1915. Graves of other cemeteries nearby were transferred to this place, in order to form one major burial ground at a later stage.
Bedford House Cemetery is situated in Zillebeke, south of Ieper, and covers some 2.6 hectares. It's the final resting place for over 5,000 people that died in the First and Second World War.
One of the landmarks on the grounds are the ruins of Bedford House, which was also known as Woodcote House, names given by the troops to what was known as Chateau Roosendaal, a nice country house in a small park on the eve of the outbreak of the war.
The place never fell in German hands, but the house and the trees were gradually destroyed through the years by continuous frontline shell fire. The mansion was used by field ambulances and served as a shelter for fighting units.