The Guard Dog of Dury Mill

On the 100th anniversary of WWI's armistice, we remember the fallen

Dury Mill cemetary
Dury Mill British Cemetery Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The dark eyes of a big, white dog, part shepherd and all French, followed us suspiciously as Carolyn and I drove up the gravel driveway and parked at our chambre d’hote outside Dury, a small village in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, halfway between Arras and Cambrai. He barked once as we opened the car doors, a warning shot across our bow, and we were sure we detected a low growl.

We found out later his name was Bear. How appropriate. Throughout our three-day stay he never warmed up to us, and he kept a wary distance. Even the cold cuts I slipped him the last morning had little sway. He took the meat, but he never took his eyes off me. Bear was a good farm dog, watching out for his human pack and their territory. And we kept a close eye on him whenever we stepped outside. Good dog. Now stay.

Christine, our hostess, showed us to our second-floor room, reached by a torturously steep and narrow staircase. The treads could accommodate only half of my size 12 shoes, but I took them in stride — small, careful strides.

The furniture was distributed comfortably around the large room. The hardwood floor and vaulted ceiling sandwiched us in a pastoral cocoon. I pushed aside the crisp, white curtains and looked down onto the U-shaped courtyard, horse barn to the right, tractor and tack sheds to the left, and a riding paddock beyond. We would be comfortable here.

My only concern was the large open window. Bear posed regally like a white canine sphinx, glaring at me from the gravel below. Just beyond the threshold of human hearing, I felt a growl. The window was quite big enough for him to make a werewolfian leap into our chamber in the middle of the night. I double-checked the latch.

In a field in northern France, a Cross of Sacrifice signals a British Commonwealth war cemetery.

Our B&B was called La Ferme de l’Abbaye, or what we translated as “Farm of the Abbey,” but we liked calling it “The Abbey” because that sounded more exotic. For three days it was our base of operations as we ticked off the list of Great War sites we had come to see: the quarry tunnels under Arras; the shell-pocked landscape of Beaumont-Hamel; the Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge; the Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood near Cambrai. But the two most important objectives of our trip were much more obscure: First, finding the crossroads where Private Arthur McQueen, Canadian Machine Gun Corps — Carolyn’s grandfather — was severely wounded just six weeks before the end of the war. And second, the Bucquouy Road Cemetery where one of Art’s buddies, Denny Murphy, was resting.

This was our pilgrimage to the Western Front, for Art and Denny.

On the horizon, flanked by tall trees in the fog, stood a concrete cross on which was mounted a large inverted sword. This was the mark of a British war cemetery — the Cross of Sacrifice, present in Commonwealth war cemeteries with 40 or more graves. Every time we approached our B&B we could see it just a short distance away.

We had checked off all of our planned sites, but now, on our last day at The Abbey, we had spare time to visit this one, Dury Mill. There was no family connection to this cemetery, but it was here, and since we were too, we felt we should pay our respects.

Most Commonwealth cemeteries are small. During and after the war, the French, Americans, and Germans tended to concentrate the graves of their fallen into several very large cemeteries spread throughout the region. Great Britain, on the other hand, buried their dead not far from the field hospitals and aid stations near the front. They are located at roadsides, in large cities and small towns, in hidden forests, at large national memorials, and, like Dury Mill, in farmers’ fields. Our guidebook shows more than 950 Commonwealth war cemeteries in northern France and Belgium. Dury Mill is Number 570.

We drove down the road a few hundred yards and turned onto a mud track that led through a beet field to the cemetery. Throughout the track, potholes had been filled with white gravel and broken stones. We drove on toward the cemetery.

Suddenly, Carolyn shouted.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Stop the car! Stop the car!

Her intensity shocked me.

“What?! What’s the matter?” I said as I lurched the car to a stop.

“We’re driving on headstones!”

“What?” I repeated, confused. I couldn’t have heard her right.

“Look!” she said, pointing to the ground.

I opened the door and looked down. What I had mistaken as white gravel filling the potholes were shards of white marble, chunks and pieces and fragments of white marble. And on the larger pieces we could see letters. And numbers. And motifs. And names.

We were driving on headstones.

We parked the car and walked down the freshly mown grass footpath. Like hundreds of others in northern France, this cemetery was a small island in a sea of furrowed ground. A 4-foot-tall red brick wall surrounded it, accompanied by a Cross monument, an entry gate, and a small interpretive sign. There was a small niche in the wall, and inside it was a loose-leaf binder where visitors could sign their names and inscribe their thoughts. It also contained a registry listing the names of all the soldiers buried there. That is, those whose names were known. Many entries, like their headstones, were simply marked, “A Soldier of the Great War.”

Many headstones were simply marked ‘A Solder of the Great War.’

Outside the walls, the dark green beet leaves contrasted with the light green carpet grass of the footpath and the cemetery. Inside, lined up like parallel dominoes, were 336 headstones. Most were Canadian, and most had died on Sept. 2, 1918. The cemetery was immaculate — no weeds, no trash, no damaged headstones. Some of the stones were old, but others looked quite new, as if they had only recently been replaced. It was then that we realized, and later confirmed, the origins of the marble fill for the potholes. Over time, as stones are damaged or deteriorate, they are replaced with new ones. The old markers are crushed and given to the farmers for their use. These were honorable discards of the war.

We needed a remembrance. So we walked the tractor path and picked three small anonymous marble fragments to take home. The cool November air carried molecules of earthiness released by the harvesters. I looked around at the peaceful countryside. There was no indication whatsoever of the carnage this landscape had endured a century before. Except for the cemetery. A half-mile away, I could see our B&B, surrounded by leafless trees already bare for the season.

When we returned to The Abbey later that day, Bear stared at us as we got out of the car with the marble fragments. Did he know? Could he sense that we were holding the vestiges of retired headstones of fallen soldiers of the Great War? Was he watching us from his backyard as we drove through the beet field to the cemetery? Did he approve of our removal of these broken fragments? Did he understand the sincerity of our respect?

I think he did. He didn’t growl this time.

Don Watts headshotBorn and raised in San Antonio, Don treasures the memory of the hometown that he didn’t fully appreciate until he left. But Boise, Idaho, won his heart, and he retired there in 2013 after a 33-year career with the Historic Preservation Office of the Idaho State Historical Society. He and his soul mate, Carolyn, relish their adventures with grandchildren and friends, travel, and culinary discoveries. And he has finally realized what a pain long hair is.
Southern Idaho Mensa | Joined 1998