“EVACUATION” circular letter, 17 May 1940, CWGC/1/1/B/76
Things were different in France. In Belgium, most of the IWGC staff lived in a relatively concentrated area around Ypres, but in France, they were scattered in cities and villages from Reims to Calais. Brigadier John Mervyn Prower, the Chief Administrative Officer in France, ordered the gardeners to stay at their posts unless ordered to evacuate by civil authorities.
Thus, many of the Commission’s staff were still at work when German forces arrived. On May 19, the Commission’s Arras office was bombed by the Luftwaffe. “We instinctively dashed for the cellar,” wrote Joseph Gothwaite, an Inspector of Stones and Material. “As we were moving, every window of the office was blown in, doors came off their hinges, splinters struck the internal walls and the whole place was littered with dust, files, and papers in the space of seconds.” The Commission office was located just across from the Arras train station, which had been the main target of the attack. When the dust settled, Nursing Sister Betty Stuart, a member of the Commission’s medical staff, climbed out of the cellar and began providing first aid to the hundreds of wounded, many of whom had been passengers on refugee trains parked at the station. Gothwaite praised Sister Stuart’s “extreme bravery” and marvelled that, “she was as calm and collected as if nothing out of the common had occurred.”
Gardener Patrick Egan, his wife Claire, and their seven children were among the civilians evacuated from Dunkirk on the SS St. Helier on May 23. Their three oldest sons, C.W., Alphonsus, and Ambrose, were all employed by the Commission as Pupil Gardeners. In 1941, Alphonsus was killed while serving with the RAF and is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. C.W. returned to France after the war and became a Head Gardener.
SS St. Helier evacuation list, 23 May 1940, CWGC/1/1/7/B/77, Account of W.G. Price (#15), 29 May 1940, CWGC 1/1/7/B/78
Not all of the gardeners made it to the coast. On May 19, 56-year-old gardener Leopold Shreeve of Vendresse-Beaulne was riding in a car driven by his friend, gardener W.G. Price, when they encountered a German roadblock near Corbeny. At the sight of German tanks, Price turned the car around, but five soldiers opened fire, striking Shreeve in the stomach. “I think I’m hit,” Shreeve told Price. He bled to death on the way to a French military hospital. He is buried in Vailly-sur-Aisne Communal Cemetery and commemorated on the rolls of the Civilian War Dead of the Second World War.