One of the joys of blogging is unearthing little-known stories, including that of Robert Armstrong, inter-war gardener at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s military cemetery at Valenciennes, France, about 30 kilometres west of Mons, Belgium.
Valenciennes was in German hands until near the end of the First World War, when the Canadian Corps entered and cleared the town at the beginning of November. A contemporary account of the Valenciennes attack from the Toronto World newspaper in 1918 reports Canadians were supported by one of the heaviest bombardments of the war. More than 150 Canadians, names known and unknown, can be found among the 885 Commonwealth burials. Armstrong, an ex-Irish Guardsman, was given the job as gardener in the cemetery and as a neutral, was allowed by the Germans to continue his work after the outbreak of the Second World War.
But Armstrong was not neutral. He used his position to set up and run a resistance group which smuggled allied air crews and escaped prisoners of war, undoubtedly including Canadians, out of Europe. He was betrayed to the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to Waldheim Concentration Camp where he died in December 1944.
The people of Valenciennes erected a white marble memorial tablet to Armstrong at the cemetery. He was also posthumously awarded the Medaille de Resistance Française. Fitting memorials to one who served both the living and the dead.
For those who might like to visit this memorial to First and Second World War dead, the cemetery is about 1.5 kilometres north-east of Valenciennes town centre, on the north side of the road to Bruay-sur-L’Escaut. It’s open daily from 8 a.m., but closes at 6 p.m. March to September, 5:30 p.m. in October. 5 p.m. November through February.