Back from the swamp
Kirkee New CemeteryREAD STORY
Did you know?
War graves sunk in water
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.
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.
“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.”