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Book Reviews

The Caretakers – War Grave Gardeners

The Caretakers War Graves Gardeners and the Secret Battle to Rescue Allied Airmen in World War Two by Caitlin Galanta DeAngelis is published by Prometheus Books.

The Caretakers is a book about gardeners and their families. Not just any gardeners,  but gardeners employed by the Imperial War Graves Commission. It follows the stories of veterans of World War One through the interwar period and how they were treated at the hands of the Nazis in World War Two. It then covers the post-war period and their fight for recognition and compensation.

The Caretakers cover art

The Caretakers tells the story of three gardeners: Ben Leach, Robert Armstrong, and Rosine Witton. To call them gardeners is underselling their role, achievements, and bravery. Many readers will make the impression that they showed more moral courage and conviction than the broader Imperial War Graves Commission and conclude that they were badly treated. It’s hard not to see them as understated heroes.

A sense of duty would not be unexpected when considering the work that the gardeners were asked to do, especially for a modern military reader familiar with the expertly kept cemeteries. Formed in 1917, there is an allure to the idea that the Commission treated its people well and fairly. Caitlin DeAngelis’s text will challenge this conception if you hold it. The Caretakers details the poor way in which gardeners were treated, often verging on contempt and disdain, and exploiting their loyalty. That this happened concurrent to their remarkable bravery makes a gripping story.

A story of individuals and their example

What shines through the text is that the Gardeners involved lived the values we have come to expect in the modern world. Take, for example, Ben Leach.

Ben Leach was a World War One veteran who served for thirty-four years and seven months. Before that he served in the Manchester Regiment. His service record seems unblemished, and his example is inspiring. DeAngelis ends the book with a moving tribute to his values and standards in the face of adversity and challenge. A man dedicated to maintaining his memorials and doing the right thing.

Rosine Witton was a child refugee in World War One who married an Imperial War Graves Committee gardener in 1932. When the Nazis interned her husband she joined the resistance. During the war, she faced horrific treatment by the Nazis. Later, she received significant awards for her work but suffered due to a lack of real reward: [these medals are] “nice adornment without bread to eat”. Her strength of character and sense of purpose is inspiring.

Robert Armstrong was a dual British-Irish national, further complicating his situation. After the war, the British and Irish governments fought over who was responsible for his problems. A story of neglect not uncommon to others in DeAngelis’s study.

Prisoners and escapes

The Caretakers has a dual purpose. The human interest stories of Leach, Witton, and Armstrong are fascinating and draw attention. However, the secondary arguments of the book are about the role of the gardeners in rescuing downed airmen and women during the war. Here, perhaps, the title is misleading. The Caretakers details the actions of the gardeners and those around them. But it feels less interesting and detailed than the personal stories of bravery by the people themselves.

That’s not to say the research isn’t impressive. The narrative of the lines of escape is engaging. The depth of research and effort that the author put in is evident. DeAngelis’s draws multiple primary sources together to merge the human bravery with the broader picture of resistance. As you might expect from a Harvard PhD, it’s done with a writing style that maintains a reader’s interest. But I didn’t finish The Caretakers feeling I knew more about the resistance operations to rescue people.

Perhaps, however, we are missing the point. The most interesting aspect is less the details of the escape routes and more how the people reacted. The Caretakers details gardeners fighting for recognition and, at times, blackmailing the system for help. This could be seen as a throwaway statement, especially judged against the immediate post-war chaos, but it’s not. The Caretakers brings the troubles the gardeners faced to life. Ben Leach storms into a US Air Base with his certificate of appreciation and demands a job – it works. The families of other gardeners, with their mix of sadness and pride, adding the human element to an story of abandonment makes the text feel very personal.

Imperial War Graves Commission

The author does not make a judgement on the history she presents. It’s fair to say she remains impartial and reports the facts as she found them. A reader, however, can. The Caretakers offers a savage commentary on the conduct of the Imperial War Graves Commission, especially when judged against the values and expectations of today.

The role of key personalities is evident in the lived experience of many of the gardeners. Some of the Commission staff understood their role in leading the caretakers. Others did not, and the text details what we may consider acts of dereliction of duty. This adds layers of social history and politics to the story of Leach, Witton and Armstrong.

Inside this, the responses and emotions of the gardeners are explored. Many seem happy, or at least content, with their treatment. Perhaps because they value the importance and purpose of their work in remembering the dead, though this is likely only part of their motivation. The distance between the Commission and the gardeners themselves feels vast despite the primary evidence and nice letters presented in the book. It shows the role and importance of organisational leadership and ethos.

Should I read it?  

The Caretakers is history done well. Primary evidence is used to bring the human stories to life. The key narrative is merged with broader themes of interest to leave a reader more informed about what happened.

As a reader, I started The Caretakers with little knowledge of the Imperial War Graves Commission. I left with a thirst to know more to understand our history of remembrance. It also made me question if similar leadership issues remain today, particularly with large military charities. To that extent, The Caretakers, whilst a history book, is thought-provoking and relevant to a reader with a broader interest beyond that of World War Two

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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