Twenty years in the making

Ambon War Cemetery

READ STORY

Did you know?

Location:
Ambon Island, Indonesia

Altitude:
20m

Biggest Challenge:
Construction amid civil unrest and limited supplies

Language:
Ambonese Malay, Indonesian

Rainfall:
999mm

Temperature:
25c - 30c

Building a war cemetery is a tough task at the best of times. It needs planning, attention to detail, supplies, people and more than a little elbow grease.

Doing that on a remote Indonesian island in tropical conditions, with little to no access to materials, labour or even food, in the middle of repeated uprisings, is a challenge few could overcome.

But overcome they did.

This was the making of Ambon War Cemetery. Starting in 1947 repeated Commission teams were forced to withdraw as local tensions between independence factions and government forces made it unsafe.

Major Keith Proctor (back, right) during a visit by Prince Philip (centre) to Ambon War Cemetery

An early member of staff, Captain Maurice Muir was evacuated ill and malnourished after attempting to endure the siege-like conditions in the 1950s.

Later teams ran into similar problems. But their efforts to complete a fitting tribute continued; the remote island still held the bodies of thousands of Australians and Brits, many of whom had been subjected to horrendous treatment as prisoners of war.

By the 1960s, the Commission’s man on the ground was Major Keith Proctor. During the Second World War he was involved in fighting on the island. On a photograph of him and Prince Philip on a visit to the cemetery he noted to his family how returning to the area he once fought at ‘brought back a load of memories’.

After two decades of attempts, he was finally able to oversee the cemetery’s completion.

Food and supplies still remained scarce throughout, with one notable exception. On a trip to exhume bodies from the jungle into the cemetery, Major Proctor and his team were honoured with a feast by a local tribe.

At the centre of everyone’s attention he was presented with the raw eyes of the boar they were to eat.

“Much to his delight the pig’s eyes stayed down and he was able to hold up Australia’s and CWGC’s honour,” according to his daughter, Carole.

However, these lighter memories were far outweighed by the difficulties the Commission faced in creating a permanent place of remembrance for these men.

In the 2000s Ambon once again saw upheaval. In riots, caused in part by religious divide, the cemetery’s Cross of Sacrifice was destroyed. The Commission decided not to replace it, in order to avoid antagonising a delicate local situation.

By 2017, the 50th anniversary of the mammoth effort to build this now beautiful tropical war cemetery, stability had once again returned. Veterans, dignitaries and the Commission’s local gardeners were joined by a special guest.

Half a century after her dad’s success – which earned him an MBE – Major Proctor’s daughter was able to do what he and all those who came before him had worked so hard for.

Find a quiet corner of a well-tended cemetery, and let her thoughts drift off, in remembrance.

The opening ceremony at Ambon War Cemetery, the culmination of two decades of work by CWGC and other partners.
Major Keith Proctor, pictured smiling in a mixture of Western and local attire amid hot and humid weather.
Major Keith Proctor on a nearby beach with a local protection officer.
Major Keith Proctor (back, right) during a visit by Prince Philip (centre) to Ambon War Cemetery
The vibrant tropical colours of Ambon War Cemetery on a dry, sunny day.
Today, the disruption of the past is replaced with the routine of horticulture maintenance.
Shortly after construction was completed, Ambon War Cemetery, seen in its remote island location.
Banner illustration of the Four Corners logo