World War I

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery

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Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery is located at a place called La Maison Blanche, along the road D937 that links Arras to Béthune.

It holds a sad record, as it is the largest WWI German cemetery in France.

It indeed contains the remains of 44, 833 German soldiers belonging to 100 different military units.

These soldiers fell on the Artois battlefield.

They defended their positions at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette from August 1914 to 1915, then at Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917 and autumn of 1918.

The others died in the endless trench warfare that took place between the major offensives!

These men were originally buried in field graves or temporary cemeteries scattered across 110 municipalities in the Pas-de-Calais.

They were brought together in the Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery, which was open by the French military authorities between 1919 and 1923.

The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge re-organised the 10ha cemetery between 1975 and 1983.

The original wooden crosses were replaced with the current anthracite-grey cast-iron crosses in 1974 and the site re-landscaped.

A large cross, located by the entrance, is engraved with the following dedication:

Paix aux Hommes de Bonne Volonté (Peace to Men of Good Will – Friede den Menschen guten Willens)

The entrance to the cemetery is a large open porch.

It houses a model representing the positions of the different troops on the Artois battlefields, the Book of Remembrance, a guest book and a small trunk for donations.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery – Graves

The Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery, as all other German war cemeteries, is understated, yet very moving.

It indeed consists of a huge lawn, where a multitude of simple dark grey crosses are geometrically laid out.

The cemetery is planted with trees; its central lane ia lined with acacias and leads to a huge black cross.

This natural setting has a cultural background that originates from the Cult of the Dead in Germanic mythology.

Ancient warriors’ graves were indeed traditionally placed on the edge of a forest.

Trees indeed provided the necessary shade for the Dead’s eternal rest, and allowed them to enter the Warriors’ Paradise.

This natural setting also leads to contemplation and meditation.

Each cross is engraved with 4 names; two men on each side.

36,793 German soldiers are buried in the cemetery.

The remains of the 8040 unknown soldiers were placed in the ossuary located on the northern side of the cemetery.

The Wall of the Missing bears also several commemorative bronze slabs.

These are engraved with the names of the soldiers whose bodies were never found.

Several stone crosses stand also along the ossuary.

The names of all the soldiers buried in Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery are recorded on the Book of Remembrance located in the entrance porch.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery – 129 Jewish graves

Among the 44, 833 graves are those of 129 German Jewish soldiers.

They were buried in individual graves and their tombstones engraved with their name and the Star of David.

When I visited the cemetery, I was intrigued to see pebbles placed on top of some of their tombstones.

Many of these pebbles had fallen to the ground.

However, it was obvious that their presence was linked to a Jewish funeral rite.

I later discovered that placing small stones on the graves was an Ashkenazi’s custom (Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.)

It takes its roots in Palestine, where the stones marked the presence of a soul, and reminded the family of the place of burial of their beloved ones.

Ancient Jews placed sprigs of grass on the grave of their relatives during their annual visit.

They then placed a stone on top of the grass.

As the grass dried, it was blown by the wind and eventually disappeared.

The grass symbolized the transience of life, and the stones prevented the grass from disappearing too fast.

Once the grass gone, only the stone remained and kept the memory of their loved ones alive.

The stone also showed that the family visited regularly in order to honour its Dead.

I found this tradition very moving; I replaced as many pebbles as I could on the tombstones that had lost theirs.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German War Cemetery – Hanover Monument

An impressive commemorative monument dedicated to the 164th Infantry Regiment of Hanover stands in the section of the cemetery bordering the road.

The monument was initially erected in a German field cemetery open in Boiry-Sainte-Rictude, a village located to the south of Arras.

It bears the following epitaph, taken from a poem by Ludwig Uhland:

Der Gute Kamerad.

Ich hatt einen Kameraden
einen bessern findst du nicht J’avais un bon camarade
T’en trouveras pas de meilleur I had a good friend
You will not find a better one Pas-de-Calais department – Neuville-Saint-Vaast – La Maison Blanche on D937
Coordinates: Lat 50.343270 – Long 2.751866

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