Czech Cemetery near Arras

Czech Cemetery near Arras

Dr Nigel Hunt explores a cemetery dedicated to the often-forgotten Czechs on the Western Front

Between Arras and Bethune, near the village of La Targette there are two monuments, one on either side of the rCzech cemetery - signpostoad. On the left is a Czech cemetery, containing the remains of the Czech people who fought for France. The cemetery was constructed where the 2nd Battle of Artois took place, where the French and allied forces were trying to retake Vimy Ridge, which had been captured by the Germans in 1914 and provided clear views of the French positions. The area had been heavily fortified with a complex of tunnels, dugouts and machine gun posts – and was known as the Labyrinth.

The battle started on 9 May 1915, with British troops attacking in the north and the 10th French army attacking in the south. While the allies successfully recaptured a number of villages, they failed to retake Vimy Ridge.

The Czech cemetery is at the site of the original hamlet of La Targette (the modern town is to the south). It was originally built to commemorate the contribution of the Czechs to the 2nd battle of Artois, but was later extended to include Czechs who had died elsewhere on the Western Front.

Czech cemetery- memorialThe Czechs were in an unusual position at the outset of the war. Officially there were to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the side of the Germans, but many were trying to obtain independence for Czechoslovakia, so would rather fight against the Austro-Hungarians. In the east many were captured by the Russians (sometimes voluntarily) and they formed the Czech Legion to fight against the Austro-Hungarians. In the West, the Czechs who lived in France and elsewhere joined the Czech section of the French Foreign Legion in order to fight for independence. The first unit to fight for the French was the Nazdar Company, made up of 250 men. The name Nazdar comes from the unit’s battle cry, and means ‘Hi’. Eventually the number of Czech and Slovak soldiers came to 150,000 men who had volunteered from around the world. The initial men of the Nazdar company were the ones who fought on 9th May, assaulting and capturing a hill. Around 50 were killed, with another 20 dying of wounds.

The men stayed in the French Foreign Legion until the end of the war, and then joined their own army of the newly formed Czechoslovakia. In 1925 the Association of the Czechoslovakian Volunteers of France decided to erect a memorial to those who died. [memorial picture here] It was created by the artist Jaroslav Hruska. A commemorative service is still held here each May.

It wasn’t until 1938 that it was proposed to put a cemetery at La Targette. Twenty four lime trees were brought from Czechoslovakia and planted but the Second World War interrupted the development of the site and the cemetery wasn’t built until 1958. In the end 206 graves (including 136 from the Second World War) were brought here from cemeteries around France. The cemetery was officially open in 1963 and the last burials took place in 1970.

Czech cemetery - Cross of John of BohemiaThere is a Bohemian cross in the centre of the cemetery [cross image here] reminding the visitor of John of Luxembourg, the king of Bohemia, who died at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. He was blind at the time of the battle, and when he realised the battle was lost, he order two of his soldiers to lead him at the English, who killed him. There is also a monument at Crecy commemorating this suicidal act.

Opposite the Czech cemetery is a memorial to the Polish troops who fought in the French Foreign Legion at the same time as the Czechs. They too were fighting to obtain independence for their homeland.

All Quiet on the Western Front

In advance of giving an introduction to the film, Nigel Hunt explains what All Quiet on the Western Front means to him

The cover of the film, showing the main character, Paul Baumer
The cover of the film, showing the main character, Paul Baumer

When I was a second year (modern year 8) at my local comprehensive school, I went to the book store with the teacher, saw a pile of copies of All Quiet on the Western Front and, as I had read the book the year before at the age of 11, I asked the teacher if we could study it in class. She said we were ‘too young’ for such a book. This had two profound effects on me. First, I more or less gave up on school as a place I could gain a decent education. Second, I continued to read the book virtually every year for at least the next decade. It was, and is, my favourite book about war.

One of the great anti-war war novels of all time, Erich Maria Remarque’s book about the First World War came out in 1929, a decade after the end of the war. It was quickly translated into many languages, including English (the Wheen translation remains the best), and it has remained popular ever since. While the book is about the experiences of Germans on the Western Front, and the action takes place throughout the war, Remarque himself spent about a month at the front, before being wounded and spending the rest of the war in hospital. His vivid description of war is memorable; his characters real, his dialogue dramatic. The book was so popular, and so anti-war, that it was banned during the Third Reich. Remarque himself had to leave Germany, first to Switzerland, and then to build a successful career in the USA. Remarque was from the Rhineland, a descendant of French people who escaped the revolution. He reverted from Remark to Remarque as it was the original spelling, and took Maria from his mother’s name.

The teacher who persuaded the young boys that it was their patriotic duty to join up and fight for the Fatherland
The teacher who persuaded the young boys that it was their patriotic duty to join up and fight for the Fatherland

The first – and in my view best – film of the book came out in 1930. It was filmed in the USA and used hundreds of actors, many of whom were ex-German soldiers who had moved to the USA after the war. They were used as advisers for the action sequences and for the uniforms.

The director, Lewis Milestone, was a Moldovan, raised in Ukraine and educated in Belgium and Berlin. He was in the US army from 1917 as a signaller, obtained US citizenship after the war, and went to Hollywood. He quickly worked his way up the ranks and directed his first film in 1925, Seven Sinners. He won an academy award in 1927 for Two Arabian Nights, and won a second one for All Quiet on the Western Front (It also got best picture).

Baumer is in a shellhole, when a French soldier jumps in. Baumer kills him, and experiences intense, but shortlived, guilt
Baumer is in a shellhole, when a French soldier jumps in. Baumer kills him, and experiences intense, but shortlived, guilt

The main character, Paul Baumer, was played by Lew Ayres, who was so affected by the film that he became a conscientious objector in the Second World War, serving as a medic in action in South East Asia.

Nigel Hunt will give an introduction to All Quiet on the Western Front at a free public screening of the film at Broadway Nottingham on Monday 8th December at 6pm. Tickets are free and available from the venue on the day.

Where did the headstones for the First World War cemeteries come from?

Headstone of 2nd Lt J.H. Bellamy, the Sherwood Foresters

Anyone who has visited the war graves will have felt a sense of awe at their sheer number. Making headstones in that volume took a lot of effort and a lot of stone. Nigel Hunt explains the East Midlands origins of the headstones.

With over a million deaths across the UK and the Dominions, and with nearly all the dead being buried on the battlefield, there was a huge demand for high quality headstones at the end of the war, along with stone for the monuments that are dotted around the battlefields, such as the Lutjens’ Thiepval memorial and Blomfield’s Menin Gate memorial, which together commemorate over 100,000 of the missing of the Somme and Ypres respectively. In total, nearly 1.3 million names are engraved either on individual headstones or on memorials to those who have no known grave.

By 1921, over 1,000 cemeteries had been established, and 4,000 headstones were shipped to France every week. Most cemetery construction was complete by 1927.

Most people think that the headstones are all made of Portland stone, derived from Portland on the south coast. Indeed, most headstones did come from there, but the demand was so high other sources had to be found, and the other main source of headstones was in Derbyshire, from Hopton Wood quarry near Middleton-by-Wirksworth. In all, 120,000 headstones were made from Hopton Wood limestone.

Middleton Mine

The name Hopton Wood quarry is a bit misleading. While the original Hopton Wood quarry was situated in Hopton Wood, near the village of Hopton, the main quarry is to the west of Middleton, linked to another quarry in Middleton itself. The quarry closed in 2006, but it had a long history. It is a source of extremely high quality limestone, examples of which can be found in many country houses and public buildings around the country. Examples include Westminster Abbey, Birmingham Cathedral, Chatsworth House, Oscar Wilde’s tomb and the Houses of Parliament. It has been on many occasions mistaken for marble, because it can be finely polished. It is also relatively easy to carve, and is relatively hard-wearing. The main quarry is underground. There are over 25 miles of large passageways underneath the moors to the west of Middleton. The entrance can be seen from a nearby footpath.

Aerial view of Hopton Wood quarry - tunnel entrance hidden by white area, right middle
Aerial view of Hopton Wood quarry – tunnel entrance hidden by white area, right middle

There are remnants of broken headstones in the walls in the area, particularly near to the Middleton quarry in the village, but there are few other traces of what was a very busy time for the quarry.