Recently, two parallel pieces of research overlapped, out of which came an idea for a short piece about a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery that no longer exists. As with all things about the First World War, the story has more facets than at first may seem to be the case.
The town of Charleville sits on the north bank of the River Meuse in the Ardennes department, the only department of France to be wholly occupied by the German army throughout the First World War. Famous for the Charleville musket—a mainstay of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence—and, more recently, as the birth place of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, in modern times the town merged with the adjacent town of Mézières. The latter was the capital of the Ardennes region, a function that now falls to the combined commune of Charleville-Mézières.
After falling to the German army early in the war, in September 1914 the town became the site of the supreme German headquarters, the component parts of which were established in the best homes, chateau and municipal buildings throughout the town. An English language account of the German occupation of the two towns was written in 1919 and is worth reading. In addition to the other facilities and organisations required to support an important garrison, a German military hospital was set up in Saint Remi primary school—Kriegslazarett 8, Remischule zu Charleville—to service the garrison and the region. Although French prisoners had been treated in the town in the civil hospital since 1914, in late 1917 the Kriegslazarett began to accept British prisoners of war.
The prisoners who died in the hospital were buried in the town’s old cemetery, known as ‘Cimetière du Boutet’, in the western suburbs of Charleville on Avenue Charles Boutet. In his story of the occupation of the town, Domelier wrote:
‘There was another kind of ceremony which used to perturb the police, namely, the funeral of French or Allied soldiers. A certain number of these brave fellows had died in hospital and were buried in the cemetery at Charleville, in a plot specially reserved for our heroes.
At the beginning of the occupation, the bodies were handed over to the civil authorities, who celebrated their obsequies with due solemnity. A flag in the national colours was laid upon the coffin; the fire-brigade, in uniform, but without arms, paid military honours in the name of the French army. The municipality was officially represented, and in its train marched a long procession of patriots. The hearse was buried beneath flowers and wreaths tied with tricolour ribbons.
At the graveside, the head of the municipal council spoke a few words of farewell, impregnated with a lofty spirit of patriotism.
Germany was in danger! First of all, one of Bauer’s agents was sent to the cemetery to eavesdrop on the speeches and conversations. Next came an order to remove the flags and national colours of ‘the enemy’. Then the procession was limited to fifty persons, and finally, as the result of an incident created on 5th April, 1918, by a pastor who celebrated the obsequies half an hour before the time fixed by the Kommandantur (an incident which provoked a protest on our own part, and cost us seven days in prison at the Charleville Detention House), the population was forbidden to take any part whatever in these obsequies. Only a delegation from the municipal council, composed of three members, was admitted to the cemetery.
These regulations lasted till 10th November, 1918, when Charleville was finally liberated, and, without constraint or spies, but under the shells of a bombardment, was able to bury two brave young poilus who had been mortally wounded at the crossing of the Aisne.’
Buried there by the end of the war were 341 Allied casualties. They were mostly men who had died as prisoners of war, most of whom had died in the Kriegslazarett in Charleville. Of these, 177 were British, 137 were French, three were from the United States and the remainder were Belgian, Romanian and Russian.
The Russian prisoners were men of the Russian Expeditionary Force. In December 1915, Tsarist Russia had agreed to send infantry brigades to fight with the French and British forces on the western front and in Salonika. Only four brigades had been dispatched by the time of the Russian revolution, comprising a little over 44,000 men, including 450 Estonians. The 1st Special Infantry Brigade, largely equipped by France, arrived in Marseilles in April 1916; the 3rd Special Infantry Brigade followed in August 1916, meanwhile the the 2nd and 4th Brigades were sent to Salonika. The two Brigades on the Western Front took part in the Neville Offensive in April 1917, suffering 4,542 men killed wounded and missing.
The three United States casualties will be the subject of another essay on the Sacrifice blog.
The Imperial War Graves Commission established Charleville Communal Cemetery in the south-west part of the town cemetery, in Division M. Although mostly buried in national groups, some French, Russian and Romanian casualties were buried amongst the British graves. In 1962 Charleville Communal Cemetery was closed. The remains of the British and United States casualties were removed and reinterred in Terlincthun British Cemetery at Wimille in early December 1962. The reinterred comprised 170 known casualties, one unknown British soldier, and one officer and two soldiers of the United States Army. The British casualties were reinterred in Plots VIII (Rows B, C & D), and Plots XVI and XVII (Rows E & F) (see the cemetery map). In addition, a soldier of the Native Military Corps of the South African Army, who died in 1944 and who had been buried in the French plot at Charleville, was reinterred in Plot XIX at Terlincthun. The graves of six other British soldiers buried in Charleville Communal Cemetery had not been identified when the cemetery was constructed in the years after the First World War. They were originally commemorated on a cross inscribed ‘Buried in this cemetery, actual graves unknown’. Subsequently six headstones were erected inscribed ‘Known to be buried in this cemetery’. In Terlincthun British Cemetery six new headstones were erected alongside the boundary wall in the south-east corner of the cemetery beside Plot XIX. Amongst them is an inscribed Duhallow Block, the last two lines of which are from Ecclesiasticus 44, chosen by Rudyard Kipling to commemorate those buried in another cemetery whose graves have been lost:
To the Memory of these six soldiers
Buried at the time in
But whose graves
Are now lost
Shall not be blotted out
In 1988, 35 Russian soldiers were exhumed at Charleville and reinterred in the Russian military cemetery at Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand. Buried in this concentration cemetery are 915 Russian soldiers—489 known and unknown soldiers in individual graves, and 426 unknown soldiers in two ossuaries. Included amongst the graves is that of a Russian officer of 23rd Marching Regiment of Foreign Volunteers who was killed in 1940. All of the graves are inscribed, ‘MORT POUR LA FRANCE’. Nearby is a monument to the casualties of the 2nd Special Regiment, which is inscribed, ‘Children of France! When the enemy is defeated and you can freely pick flowers on these fields, remember us, your Russian friends, and bring us flowers!’. Beside the cemetery is a small Russian Orthodox chapel, dedicated on 16 May 1937 to the 4,000 Russian soldiers who fell in France and in Salonika.
In Charleville there remains a French military plot in which are buried 141 soldiers from France and the French colonies who died during the First World War. Nearby is a memorial to the Russian soldiers who now rest in Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand.
In the gallery below may be found a roll of the British and Empire casualties originally buried in Charleville Communal Cemetery as recorded in the original registers of the cemetery produced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Jean-Pierre Husson (Lieux de mémoire) for the photograph of the Russian memorial at Charleville.
Colin Woods and the Barley family for the photograph of the original graves at Charleville.
1. (Back) The General Headquarters of His Majesty the Emperor and King (Der Große Hauptquartier Seiner Majestät des Kaisers und Königs).
2. (Back) Domelier, H. (1919). Behind the Scenes at German Headquarters. London: Hurst and Blackett.
3. (Back) Charleville Communal Cemetery. Lat/Long: 49°46’33.7” N, 4°42’18.7” E. Digital Degrees: 49.776018, 4.705193.
4. (Back) Domelier. Op. Cit. pp 157-158.
5. (Back) For a detailed history of the Russian Expeditionary Force see: Cockfield, J H. (15 December 1997). With Snow on Their Boots: The Tragic Odyssey of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France During World War I. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
6. (Back) ENFANTS DE FRANCE! Quand l’ennemi sera vaincu et quand vous pourrez librement cueillir des fleurs sur ces champs souvenez-vous de nous VOS AMIS RUSSES et apportez-nous des fleurs.