One would think that First World War cemeteries were abandoned, long forgotten plots of ground. Not so. Even 94 years after the end of the war, these grassy spaces cut out of the cultivated fields of France see visitors. They come for many reasons; curiosity, historical interest or research, to seek the resting place of an ancestor, to commemorate an anniversary of a battle or great deed of heroism, and some come to bury the dead.
Such was the case on April 21, 2004 as we were touring Somme battlefield sites. Actually I had gotten lost – I was on the wrong road and I was searching for a route back to Albert. We passed Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Serre Cemetery #2. We recognized it as we had been here several times before. It is one of the largest on the Somme battlefield. Attacks in the area were frequent during the 1916 Battle of the Somme. In spring 1917, the German fell back to the Hindenburg Line leaving the area a great wasteland. A number of new cemeteries were then created to hold the dead from the previous year’s battles. After the war, Serre #2 became an accumulation cemetery for bodies originally buried in area churchyards. It now holds 7,127 Commonwealth burials from the First World War; of these 4,944 remain unidentified.
While this popular location is rarely completely empty, we noticed an unusually large number of vehicles parked along the road in front of it. Small groups of people milled about, including some in military uniform. We realized that some ceremony was about to take place, so we stopped to observe.