Print Posted By Lost in France on 3 May 2007 in Real France - French Life

Looking for a war grave in France

war gravesOn a trip to France a few years ago whilst researching our family history we located the war grave of a relative and his comrades who had been killed in World War II. This was the only grave in the cemetery and we were astounded by the interest shown in our visit by the local people, who had spent almost 50 years waiting to learn something about the background of the airmen who were buried in their cemetery.

We began our search by contacting the Commonwealth War Graves' Commission and retrieved the location and map reference from their website.

When we arrived in this remote French village, we found the villagers had carefully tended the grave since the war and every year on the anniversary of their burial and on Armistice Day the local people had laid floral tributes. The villagers were keen to tell us details of how the airmen had been shot down, showing us photos of the wreckage and relating their memories of that eventful night. All this detail, although upsetting at first, proved a valuable addition to our family history research material which we had not anticipated.

Since that first trip we have made many other visits to this particular village - not only to see the war grave this time, but to call in on the villagers, many of whom have now become firm friends. In our experience, the French people are very grateful for anything done by the allied forces in the war which helped them towards their liberation and there has always been a warm welcome awaiting us.

To those people who utter "I can't stand the French and they hate us" I would say, "you have obviously been to a different France from the one we have visited." Of course, there was a language difficulty on our first visit and it is easy to misinterpret what is being said. We had a few problems as we were relying on the French we had learnt at school and the use of a small dictionary to get us through.

{loadposition contentad}The people in "our" village spoke no English at all, but it was amazing how we managed to communicate effectively using a kind of sign language and when that failed, demonstrations, and the warm welcome they gave us would have been clear in any language! When we really struggled trying to remember words, we consoled ourselves that the minimal French we could remember was far in excess of the English they knew! As one 80 year old Frenchman explained: "We had no reason to learn English, Germany was nearer to us so we learnt their language. It did come in useful sometimes in the war". This left us rather bemused - well of course, France was occupied by the Germans so knowledge of their language would no doubt be very useful, far more useful than English!

After our return from that first holiday there was no problem deciding which class to enrol in at night school for the following September - French of course! Teaching methods have certainly changed since we were at school and we discovered it was easier to learn French the second time around! All that grammar and vocab we had learnt at school came flooding back to us and with the help of cassette tapes in the car stereo our accents improved rapidly. It is a great idea to learn a language while you are driving - there is nobody to hear when you make a mistake, just don't concentrate too hard on the French, or you might make mistakes on the road!! The following summer we again travelled over to France, we had discovered a part of the country which was untouched by tourists (no, I am not giving away our secret, we want it to stay that way!) and were keen to explore further.

One of the disadvantages however of choosing such a remote area was that the locals did not speak any English - but was it really a disadvantage? It certainly gave us a goal to work towards through the winter months in our night classes and once we went back to France we were amazed just how much we had learnt. The French were able to understand us and we had some quite interesting conversations on that second visit. For example, we met an old Frenchman who had been a Prisoner of War in Auschwitz, with the brand mark on his arm to prove it.

The use of a large French-English dictionary, which we had purchased before our second visit, was essential in understanding all he was telling us. But when he stood up from his chair and produced a dagger from his desk drawer and made stabbing movements, we were left in no doubt that he had attacked more than a few of the enemy before he was captured! Horrifying? Well, yes I suppose it was, but it was also somehow very humbling to meet a man who had clearly suffered a lot during the war but who had survived and, as they say, "lived to tell the tale." We were keen to follow up any historical trails and this soon developed into a holiday where we spent time wandering into any cemeteries where there were war graves.

Whilst some people go on holiday to admire the scenery or look round museums or stately homes, we chose war cemeteries. A plaque on the wall states "Commonwealth War Graves" if there are any servicemen buried there. Our curiosity took us into large cemeteries, filled with hundreds of soldiers of all nationalities and into tiny village churchyards with perhaps only one or two war graves. It is quite emotional to walk into the larger cemeteries where as far as the eye can see there are nothing but headstones. On one such visit, as the tears clouded my eyes, I was transported back to my teaching days and suddenly instead of headstones I visualised young people in a school assembly. Quite a chilling realisation of the numbers involved who lost their lives at such a young age. In some cemeteries we found not only headstones of Commonwealth servicemen but also rows of headstones with the names of French families and the same dates of death - a tragic reminder that innocent civilians were sometimes killed on these raids. Whole families were wiped out when bombs dropped on their houses.

{loadposition contentad-left}In one village as we left the cemetery a Frenchman rode up on his bike and told us he had been orphaned by a raid, but still he showed no bitterness and was full of praise for the RAF for their efforts in the war. Invariably when the locals spotted our GB plates on the car they would wander over to talk to us. The village streets could be deserted as we drove up, often in the early afternoon when families were still eating an enormous lunch or sleeping off the after-effects. But perhaps a head would peep out from behind the curtains or someone would be pottering in the garden and look across and smile. We have made many friends this way and our help in seeking out relatives of those buried in France has been sought by the villagers many times now.

More often than not we have found ourselves writing letters to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, or checking their website, on our return home for more information. This has then been followed up by a letter to the local newspaper in the area where the serviceman lived before joining the forces. Usually someone who remembers the family will get in touch, and we have had some moving moments when relatives have found out for the first time where their loved ones who were killed in the war are buried.

One elderly gentleman, now a pensioner himself, had always wondered where his young brother had been buried after he was shot down in a raid over France but had no idea where to start looking. When he read of our visits he got in touch and he has since been to France himself to see the grave. It appears there are thousands of others like him.

It is only recently that families have taken an interest in the war. Perhaps it was too painful to re-open the wounds caused when members of the family had been killed in action and they tried to carry on as normal, busy working and bringing up a family. But now when those who served in the war are of retirement age and their own children are middle-aged, interest is being rekindled. Perhaps they are researching their family history, as we have done, or maybe they feel they ought to find out about the location of their loved one's grave before it is too late. Some people have said our hobby is morbid - but we don't think so, we are not only looking into family history but learning a new language and helping others too so how can it be morbid?

What is sad though is the large number of graves scattered throughout France where nobody has ever visited. The French villagers are also saddened by this and often think it is because nobody cares, but when we explain it is perhaps because the families are unaware of the location they understand and always after such a visit, I promise to try and find relatives and I keep the French people informed of my research. It is a bonus to all of us if relatives go to meet the villagers who have looked after the graves of their loved ones for many years.

So if you are looking for a new extension to your genealogy research and have an interest in the war and want to learn a new language, perhaps you should do as we have done. And remember it is not only in France where this kind of research can be done, there are many other countries too so there is room for all of us to enjoy our pursuit away from the crowds!

UK based, Lucy Grace has many years' experience as a freelance writer. Articles have been published in various publications on subjects ranging from genealogy, to parenting issues, health, hobbies, travel and many more.In addition, Lucy has written education materials and a book on local history.


What do you think?

Join Our Newsletter - Today