Deputy Mayor of Hastings Councillor James Bacon attended a wreath laying ceremony in Béthune, France, on behalf of the town earlier this month.
Situated about ten miles from the front, Béthune was very much a British town during the First World War thanks to the steady flow of Commonwealth soldiers passing through on leave and the regiments quartered there. Schools were requisitioned and turned into hospitals to treat the wounded evacuated from the front.
Throughout the war Béthune was exposed to occasional shelling but on April 9th 1918, during the German offensive on the Lys, the town centre was methodically destroyed. Only the 16th century belfry survived the ‘storm of steel’. The reconstruction of the town took place during the 1920s.
Mr Bacon said: “It was such an honour to be one of the representatives from Hastings in the Centenary event of the First World War in our twin town of Béthune. I met the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Béthune, as well as taking part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Bristol Stele, remembering all those who lost their lives during the 1914-1918 conflict.”
The Bristol Stele commemorates the close bond between Bethune and Bristol established after the war when the people of Bristol came to the assistance of the French town.
On September 18th 1920 Béthune Council received a telegram from the British League of Help announcing that the people of Bristol would sponsor the town’s reconstruction.
During the war many British soldiers were quartered in Béthune and developed fond memories of the town. Around 70,000 soldiers enlisted in Bristol and millions of weapons and munitions left her port bound for France and the Bristol Stele stands in remembrance.
The Deputy Mayor’s trip also included a private view of “Béthune à l’heure anglaise, regard d’un collectionneur” which contains a large collection of letters, postcards and period objects that trace the very special relationship that Béthune established with the British during World War I.
Mr Bacon said, “Thank you to the Hastings Association of Twin Towns for all of the hard work and time they put into keeping the relationship going between out twin towns. We look forward to welcoming representatives from Bethune when they visit Hastings later in the year.”
The first British soldier to be buried in Béthune’s cemetery was interred on September 14th 1914, the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Most of the graves belong to soldiers who died in the British ambulances based in the various schools around the town.
A careful study of the dates on the gravestones gives an idea of the losses suffered during battles in the sector (Festubert, Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée…) and the extent of the British Empire at that time. The most recent graves are those of 26 officers of the Manchester Regiment who were killed by a single bomb dropped by a plane on December 22nd 1917 on Boulevard Kitchener.