Blitzkrieg and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission On 10 May 1940, the Germans began their invasion of the Low Countries. The invasion was called ‘Blitzkrieg’ or ‘lightning war’ and was sudden and unexpected. The Commission had almost 550 staff in France and Belgium at this time, tending the graves and memorials of the fallen of the First World War as well as a small number of the Second World War. On 15 May, Captain Haworth, in charge of the Commission’s Belgium Area Office in Ypres, gave his staff leave to evacuate their wives and children. It had been planned to evacuate via Oostende but this proved impossible and Haworth made arrangements for families to leave Europe via France. On the 18th, 250 men, women and children were waiting for transport outside the Commission’s school in Ypres. However, the buses which had been procured to take the staff and their families to France were commandeered by the French Army. Captain Haworth had only seven cars to get his men and their families out of Belgium. Single men were sent to Le Havre on bicycles. Eventually, Haworth managed to get help from two RASC lorries and the families were able to flee, only to have further transport issues when they reached France. By any means necessary, the families made their way to Calais and at 1pm on the 27 May, the evacuees were safely in England. In France, the Commission was slower to react than it had been in Belgium. There was some confusion and by the time a withdrawal was attempted, ordered movement was impossible. The order to leave was not given until 20 May, when parts of Boulogne were bombed to ruins by the Germans. Many staff in remote areas made individual bids for escape, undertaking harrowing journeys to the coast. The last refugees took until 6 June to reach England. In a fortnight, the Germans had overrun or were threatening almost all of Belgium and France. Some staff and families did not escape. Of the 540 staff in France and Belgium, 206 failed to get to England. By March 1942, 159 men were known to be interned and 36 at liberty. 11 men were either dead or unaccounted for. Some staff joined or assisted the resistance movements. Several of those who had been captured died later in captivity. During the Second World War a mutual agreement was in place between the Germans and Allies that all war cemeteries of the First World War, regardless of nationality, would be cared for with due respect. Some were caught in the crossfire but the damage to First World War cemeteries and memorials was much less than had been anticipated. Still, at the end of the war in 1945 the Commission faced a massive challenge. Repairs had to be carried out to the few cemeteries and memorials damaged during the fighting, to the First World War sites which, while unaffected by the war, had faced the ravages of time and, of course, new headstones and memorials had to be erected to commemorate the casualties of the Second World War. Throughout the victory celebrations, staff returned to their posts, to damaged homes and harsh post-war conditions. Striving to carry out their work despite the extreme difficulties they faced, they worked tirelessly to restore and create fitting places of rest to those who gave their lives in the two world wars. The beautifully maintained sites all over France and Belgium are a tribute also to a team of highly skilled and dedicated workers who strove for perfection in the most adverse conditions.
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