When World War I ended, hundreds of British veterans stayed in France to work for the newly chartered Imperial War Graves Commission. Through the 1920s and 1930s, these veteran-gardeners married local women, raised bilingual children, and dedicated themselves to caring for the graves of their fallen comrades.
When World War II swept through Europe in 1940, more than 200 War Graves gardeners were stranded in Nazi-occupied France. Their bosses explicitly ordered them to remain at their posts, even when their villages were under attack by the invading Germans. While some escaped, others were arrested by the Nazis. A handful managed to stay free and join the French Resistance. With their English-language skills and unshakable loyalty to the Allied cause, the gardeners and their families took on crucial roles in the effort to save British and American airmen shot down in France. In some cases, they hid the airmen in World War I cemeteries.
In The Caretakers, internationally renowned cemetery expert Caitlin Galante DeAngelis tells the true story of three of these unlikely heroes: Ben Leech, a barman from Manchester who became a cemetery gardener in Beaumont-Hamel and joined the Resistance; Rosine Witton, the wife of a British gardener, who served as a key conductor on the famous Comet Line and survived Ravensbrück; and Robert Armstrong, an Irish gardener who worked for the Resistance until he was captured by the Nazis and sentenced to death.
Through meticulous research, never-before-published journals and papers, and compassionate storytelling, DeAngelis honors the sacrifices made by War Graves gardeners and their families.
Caitlin Galante DeAngelis is an internationally renowned expert on cemeteries. She earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University with a dissertation on the political histories of cemeteries in Britain and America. Formerly a lecturer at Harvard, she was also employed by the President of the university to write a proprietary report about Harvard’s historical ties to slavery.
DeAngelis has been interviewed as an expert on cemetery history by media outlets including the Boston Globe, The New Yorker, and WBUR and her cemetery photography has been published in Atlas Obscura and 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoades. She is an active member of several UK-based historical associations including the Western Front Association and the Great War Group,and contributed a popular article about the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s blog.
“What does it mean to care for the dead, to dwell in that cemetery garden? In this moving book, Caitlin Galante DeAngelis tells the surprising story of what it cost to care for the dead of the First World War, through the Second.”—Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
“A deeply moving account of self-sacrifice, and physical and moral courage. DeAngelis’ meticulous research brings to the fore a story that needs to be told.” – Dr. Helen Fry, author of Mi9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two and Women in Intelligence: The Hidden History of Two World Wars among many others
“The Caretakers is a truly fascinating book, and an absolute must read. Equal parts labor, social, and military history, DeAngelis’ work is a testament and memorial to those brave souls who rescued, hid, and aided downed allied airmen in the Second World War. DeAngelis proves we still have much to learn and that there are important stories to be told from the Second World War.” – Dr. Brian D. Laslie, Command Historian, United States Air Force Academy
“A heartfelt and stunning tribute to ordinary people rising to meet the challenge of extraordinary times.” – Alexandra Churchill, historian and author of In the Eye of the Storm: George V and the Great War among others
“The Caretakers is brilliantly researched, and an enthralling read. This fantastic book shines a much needed light of the unsung men & women of Imperial War Graves Commission who showed loyalty, bravery, and patriotism in all its guises during the dark days of the Nazi Occupation of Europe.” – Kate Vigurs, author of Mission France: The True History of the Women of the SOE
“The Caretakers reveals compelling stories of the guardians of Silent Cities who found themselves caught up in another Total War, and how they and their families had to live with Nazi terror, fight to resist fascism, and face deportation to the death camps. A fascinating and groundbreaking book; DeAngelis emerges as a wonderful storyteller of a truly forgotten aspect of WWII.” – Paul Reed, host of the Old Front Line podcast