Back from the swamp

Kirkee New Cemetery

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Did you know?

Location:
Pune, India

Altitude:
559m

Biggest Challenge:
War graves sunk in water

Language:
Marathi

Rainfall:
2,260mm

Temperature:
13c - 38c

Imagine trying to pinpoint the exact location of 2,500 lost graves. Now imagine they’ve been swallowed up in swamps and overgrowth for more than 60 years and are spread across a country that spans more than a million square miles.

That is exactly what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission undertook to do when it decided to reinstate the graves of men buried in long-abandoned military bases in India.

Known as cantonment sites, these graves had been reluctantly ruled out as impossible to maintain in the 1940s.

As the British withdrew during the partition of India, the lack of transport and communication links across this vast country led to fears the work required would outstrip resources.

Instead they were commemorated on three memorials in Delhi, Pune and Madras.

But it wasn’t impossible to undo.

In the noughties, it was decided that the Commission would take on this mammoth task. By 2009 our Delhi-based team set out to scour their own country for these lost graves.

After investigating under the water, teams were satisfied that the grave underneath had not been disturbed.

Even gaining entry to some sites required hacking back decades of overgrowth. Some, like Kirkee New Cemetery, were waist deep in water. Others had been built over, in places with other graves.

The restoration work was ambitious. In Kirkee, the ground had to be raised by four feet to get above the local water table. Though the headstones were at times only just poking out above the surface, the graves below remained undisturbed.

After a decade of work 2,309 people across India have had their graves restored, and the job continues. They all died in the First World War; mostly men who succumbed to illness in remote outposts, far away from any fighting.

By the end of the project, the plot was almost unrecognisable from the swamp that had once been there.

“It was a very big project,” said Kenei Sekhose, who oversaw the work.

“Now that we have done this we have had some really positive responses and the families are really happy we’ve been able to do restore the graves of their relatives.”

For Kenei, the most rewarding part was reuniting families with something they thought had been lost forever.

He said: “It’s always very emotional. A lot of these families had given up on being able to find these graves, but now they know exactly where they are buried and that means a lot. “Even though they are in a far-flung location they are still looked after like anyone else.”

In Kirkee New Cemetery, war graves had almost been swallowed up under water.
Locating the graves proved a real challenge.
Inspecting the now completely restored plot, including brand new CWGC headstones.
By the end of the project, the plot was almost unrecognisable from the swamp that had once been there.
In places the ground had to be raised by four feet to keep replacement headstones high and dry.
After investigating under the water, teams were satisfied that the grave underneath had not been disturbed.
In some places trees had completely grown through war graves.
In places, other graves had been built on top or overlapping war graves.
New headstones are carefully lined up to create the clean visual lines that CWGC sites are known for.
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