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Rush to repair Flanders war graves as WWI anniversary looms

With the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One approaching, the rush is on to repair thousands of headstones in Belgian war cemeteries.

A century of wind and weather has worn the surfaces of 12,000 headstones in Tyne Cot cemetery in Zonnebeke, Flanders, making names hard to read.

Some gravestones are chipped or cracked and the stones are no longer perfectly aligned.

Workers are now using diamond drill bits to painstakingly re-engrave stones and make the names more legible and the regimental shields more distinct.

It’s all part of an attempt to get the cemeteries of the British Commonwealth – Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world – in perfect condition for the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected to attend the World War One centenary commemorations from 2014-18.

The works are being carried out to provide the most fitting memorial possible to those who perished in the massive conflict.

Some 2,000 headstones will be replaced with new ones, identical to the originals with another 7,000 being re-engraved.

The rows of stones will be realigned into geometric perfection and the landscaping trimmed and renewed.

Gravestones generally last about 90 years before the names are gradually erased by time.

“What we don’t want are visitors coming in and then finding that they visit the headstone and the flowers aren’t as they should be or there is damage on the stone,” said a spokesman at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The 100th anniversary of the war comes just as living memory of what was then called the Great War has faded: this will be the first major anniversary for which no known soldiers survive.

The Tyne Cot cemetery lies near Ypres, an area that held a strategic position during World War One, standing in the way of Germany’s planned sweep into France from the north.

In 2011, more than 300,000 people visited the cemetery and, during the centenary years, this is expected to increase by 10-15%.

World War One broke out on 28 July, 1914 and the guns finally fell silent more than four years later, on 11 November, 1918. Ten million people are estimated to have died. Europe can expect a series of commemorations of various events and battles between 2014-18.

At least 600,000 people were killed in Belgium of which at least 550,000 fell in West Flanders. More than 300,000 of these victims are buried in the military cemeteries dotted around the Flemish countryside but at least 200,000 are still missing.

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