Before going to work, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Lebanese gardeners always switch on the local radio. Though the dry summers and spring flash floods cause them enough problems, they’re not listening to check the weather – they’re making sure it’s safe to go to work.
It’s a necessary precaution. Beirut has found itself the centre of attention for dangerous reasons in the past. There’s still political instability in neighbouring countries. A refugee centre near to CWGC’s Beirut War Cemetery can at times be the focal point for tense stand offs that spill out into the street.
Gardeners are on strict instructions to stay home at the slightest sign of trouble.
Thankfully, most days in Beirut begin peacefully enough. An early start before the sun’s punishing summer heat is normal for head gardener Yousef.
Beirut War Cemetery’s grand date palms can only provide so much shade and the locally grown roses need constant attention to stay in bloom.
The cemetery here is split into two parts: The First World War section is dominated by the graves of men who died of Spanish flu during the military occupation in 1918-19.
On the other side of the road, the Second World War part pays testament to the cost of the brutal fighting to reclaim the city from Vichy French and subsequent occupation.
And the World Wars weren’t the last time shots were fired here. During the complex Lebanese Civil War, it’s said the cemetery was used as an artillery position.
Throughout the 70s and 80s the local gardeners did what they could despite repeated calls by the Commission not to put themselves at risk.
One close call saw the head gardener forced to take cover behind a wall for an hour while sheltering from a bombardment.
By the time the civil war ended the number of headstones damaged by missiles and shell fire nearly reached 1,000. Luckily the damage was only superficial. The graves remained undisturbed and by 1994 the cemeteries were completely restored by the Commission.
Today, it’s the weather that causes the most problems. Flash spring floods and long, hot summers mean tending to flowers is a constant war against the elements, making that weather forecast on the radio important to pay attention to as well.
For those unfamiliar with World War history, or African geography, you could be forgiven for not being able to point to Eritrea on a map.
It sits on the Horn of Africa, north of Somalia, and was once the scene of fierce fighting in the Second World War. Men from around the world – Britain, Undivided India, South Africa and Sudan – assembled in a narrow mountain pass here in 1941.
The Battle of Keren was key to the Allies’ fight against the Italian occupiers in Eritrea. Tens of thousands of men from both sides fought across a steep gorge and mountain pass for control of the roads towards the city, and ultimately the route to the capital Asmara.
On the outskirts of the city stands the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) Keren War Cemetery. One of the first to be built after the Second World War, it is almost entirely unaltered since it was constructed.
It stands as a permanent reminder of more than 700 Commonwealth men who died here. The tough conditions make it a little more challenging for CWGC’s local team to maintain the dotted horticulture that can survive the arid climate.
Despite the challenges it remains a beautiful setting for the few visitors who can negotiate the visa process and stand here, in the peaceful shadow of the mountain ridges that so many men died fighting for control of.
Alongside rows of headstones is the Keren Cremation Memorial, a common feature where the Indian forces fought. Men who were cremated in accordance with their faith are remembered here by name.
Among them is Richhpal Ram VC who was posthumously awarded the highest military honour for his bravery during the battle.
“Just two hours away from Keren you find our other war cemetery in Eritrea,” said Rich Hills, CWGC’s regional director.
“In the country’s capital Asmara the environment is distinctly different. While Keren is arid and dry, in Asmara the air appears to have more moisture, the surrounding terrain is very wooded and green and there’s a large cactus forest behind the cemetery.”
Although water must always be managed carefully in Asmara, the difference in microclimate is very noticeable and our horticulture faces less of an uphill battle.
While the work of our dedicated team in Eritrea is varied and far from common knowledge, it’s also far from finished.
We constantly look forward to ways in which we can increase the standards of maintenance at these remarkable sites.
When it comes to Remembrance Day, and you bow your head in silence, you could be forgiven for not knowing about the village chief who helps make our work possible.
But in Nigeria, it’s just another part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s work.
Across the vast West African nation are a series of isolated headstones, mostly men who died of illness while stationed here in the First World War.
Throughout the world we rely on making strong relationships with those whose land our war graves lie in.
In England, that often means vicars. In Canada, that can be farmers out in the prairie.
In West Africa, that means building a relationship with village chiefs, like here in Baro Village with Alhaji Mohammed.
Lolu Enabolu, CWGC’s Nigerian supervisor, helps us to build and maintain these vital connections on the ground. On his last visit to Baro with regional manager Simon Fletcher, the pair sat down for the customary tea and conversation with Alhaji, before being led to the war graves. Small formalities like this go a long way to gaining local trust.
In these remote locations, you can never underestimate the importance of local trust.
Another lone burial, that of Captain Haworth Massy, in Udi village, bears a powerful reminder of how World War history unites the world.
Captain Massy, whose grave is seen below with Lolu on his latest inspection, may appear to be buried in isolation in this quiet spot, a day’s drive south of the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
But you can draw a line, 3,000 miles long, from this place to one of CWGC’s most visited locations – the Menin Gate, upon which is engraved his brother’s name.
The two signed up for the same war. Though they died in very different ways, and at opposite ends of the world, the memory of their family’s loss is preserved forever by our global task.
A job that we can only do by building strong local connections everywhere we go, whether it’s the vicar, the farmer, or the village chief – something worth trying to remember next 11 November.
For more than half a century two crouching stone tigers stood, ready to pounce, at the mouth of the Suez Canal.
Their wide-open mouths and bared teeth called on the thousands who passed by to look up and recall the memory of more than 3,000 Indians who gave their lives in Egypt and Palestine during the First World War, and have no known grave.
However, if you stood there today, you would never know. In the 1960s the sculpted tigers, along with the rest of the Port Tewfik Memorial, were destroyed beyond repair. Many of the bronze panels were stolen. Collateral damage in the Arab-Israeli War.
It’s now one of a handful of CWGC sites that, in its original form, exists now only in photographs.
There had been nods to the culture of those remembered there. The words chosen by CWGC’s first Literary Advisor, Rudyard Kipling, were carefully cast in bronze panels in English, Hindi, Urdu and Gurmukhi.
However, no names appeared on the memorial when it was unveiled in 1926, only the names of their units or regiments.
The Commission had not been satisfied with the records of the missing provided by the army and colonial authorities and so no names were included. These were eventually obtained and included in the register.
As well as being a memorial to the missing Port Tewfik stood as a memorial to the Indian Army which served in Egypt and Palestine during the War. It’s two crouching tigers, embodying the Indian Army, stood guard over the entrance to the Suez Canal, the vital artery of Empire.
Imperial fortunes, however, would slowly wane. As Britain withdrew from lands it had once ruled, the commanding locations that had been chosen for memorials like this were suddenly harder to access.
Following the memorial’s destruction in the 1960s, the Commission strove to restore it but by the 1970s, it became clear that a replacement memorial could not be built in the same location. On top of the area’s instability, a towering power mast had been hastily erected within metres of the ruins.
After long debate, it was decided to build a new memorial within the grounds of Heliopolis War Cemetery, in a Cairo suburb, 75 miles east. The Commission took the opportunity to redress the historical inequality and so physically included the names on the new memorial, so now all 3,727 men are commemorated there.
And now new tigers guard their memory. The symbolic spirit of the Indian Army was replicated in the new design with three bronze tigers placed at each of the cemetery’s entrances.
The tigers, still crouching; the names, no longer hidden.
We now know more about this site.
Read our report into historical acts of non-commemoration.
Upon arrival at Kariokor cemetery, our staff know there is still work to be done before they even open the gates. They can hear the tell-tale sound of a hammer and nail.
This isn’t their colleagues at work, making repairs. The sound they’re hearing is someone nailing out a taut animal hide to dry, just metres away from a war grave.
It’s one of a few businesses which have set up shop, without permission, in the cemetery grounds in the Nairobi suburb named after the Carrier Corps of the First World War, many of whom were recruited from this neighbourhood.
Today, it’s where 59 African Second World War casualties are buried. Encroachment isn’t unique to Kenya. Around the world, as cities grow, many of the 23,000 locations at which we operate face challenges created by man-made expansion.
At Kariokor, CWGC has been working carefully with local authorities to find the best long-term solution. One plan is to renovate the space into a memorial park, with more information to help people understand the history of the Africans buried there.
A key partner in helping to spread that story is the Museums of Kenya. Their interest in Nairobi (Kariokor) Cemetery saw them bestow it with their highest level of historical importance and ‘gazette’ the whole site as a heritage asset, a part of Kenya’s history as well as that of the Second World War.
People trying to find space to set up their businesses aren’t the only uninvited visitors causing a problem for the Commission’s Kenya team.
Another unwanted guest in nearby Nairobi War Cemetery is something most European gardeners have probably never thought of protecting themselves against – monkeys.
“They come in and eat the plants,” said Daniel Achini, our senior technical supervisor out in Nairobi.
“The problem is that there is less food for them in the forest these days, so they come to the city looking for food. Our cemeteries are full of plants, lined up ready and waiting.”
The plants that survive the monkey invasions need constant care in order to survive the region’s occasional droughts. Guarding against unwanted visitors and reacting to changing weather patterns is all just a part of what it takes to make sure those who died on this soil aren’t forgotten.
“We know there’s still plenty of work to do,” said Daniel, “but, we’re on it.”
For six years CWGC gardener Mohamed Abouzied was cut-off from his colleagues. In that time he worked virtually alone. His only company at work were 2,000 war dead buried in the Egyptian desert.
Mohamed is the Commission’s resident gardener at Kantara War Memorial Cemetery. The site sits in the Sinai Peninsula, on the east bank of the Suez Canal. In 2013 a key crossing over the water was shut amid a rise in militant attacks.
Access for people coming in from elsewhere in Egypt was tough. For Mohamed, a citizen of the region, he was able to stay put in the live-in accommodation at our cemetery – a setup that’s not uncommon for remote war cemeteries.
Regular phone contact with his managers was still possible and once they were assured it was going to be safe for him to stay on, they agreed to his continued work.
And that’s exactly what Mohamed did. Quietly, and without ceremony, he continued his job. He did minor repair work, swept away wind-blown debris, re-leveled the sand and tended to the few plants that can survive the desert conditions.
He is one of many unsung heroes at the Commission. Within his care were the final resting places of war dead from more than 10 nations – allies and enemies from both World Wars. But none of them were forgotten.
While no one else could, he was there to remember and to tend.
Thankfully, things have since improved. In summer 2019, a new tunnel under the Suez Canal was opened, making access simple once more. Improved tools and supplies could be brought in and Mohamed received his first visitor in years: his manager, Baghdady Rashed.
And when Baghdady arrived, the site looked as if there had never been any problems at all.
War memorials come in many shapes and sizes. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is known around the world for creating a blueprint for how memorials, and cemeteries, should look.
But anyone familiar with our work will know that if we created a rule, it was probably broken at some point too.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the hot, busy streets of Giza. It’s the location of quite possibly the most unusual and least known of all our memorials; one that broke the convention of ‘functional memorials’.
That’s because it is, in fact, a laboratory.
Building an annexe to an Egyptian eye hospital at the same time as constructing grand monumental memorials elsewhere in the world sounds strange, but it was no accident.
During the First World War around 125,000 Egyptian men supported British Empire Forces as part of the Egyptian Labour Corps (ELC) and the Camel Transport Corps (CTC).
Their work was varied. Some were stretcher bearers, others built vital supply and transport infrastructure that kept the war effort on the move.
However, when those serving with the ELC or CTC died, their units often buried them in unmarked graves or kept sporadic records, if at all. It’s estimated around 10,000 to 50,000 died during the First World War but an accurate number is impossible to know without proper records.
When the Commission’s work to commemorate all who served under the banner of British Empire forces began it was faced with the impossible task of remembering an unknown quantity of anonymous men from Egypt.
A long debate took place amongst the Commission’s representatives in Egypt and Egyptian authorities, which saw many an idea bounce back and forth. They liked the idea of a memorial mosque, but there were enough already in the main cities.
They liked the idea of memorial with a function.
In the end, after drawn out discussions, it was agreed that a memorial laboratory building, to sit within the grounds of a new ophthalmic hospital, then under construction, would be the most fitting solution.
A fully functional building that could be of benefit to the Egyptians now and in the future. And that it does to this day. Nearly a century later the Giza Memorial is still in operation as a key part of the hospital’s training facilities.
And on the outside walls stand tall bronze plaques that bear the likeness of some of the anonymous but not unremembered men whose lives, and deaths, continue to be commemorated by this most curious of war memorials.
Some of the first and last shots of the First World War were fired in Africa. Hundreds of thousands of men from across the continent were mobilised by European powers on both sides and drawn into long and bloody conflict.
These stories are often overshadowed by tales from the Western Front.
But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s commitment in Africa is huge. It spans 43 countries. It’s also the site of some unique memorials that, when unpicked, tell the nuanced task of remembrance on this vast continent.
In 2017 the appearance of 3D scanners in the centre of Mombasa drew crowds of curious locals as the CWGC began restoration of one of these memorials.
The Mombasa African Memorial – one of four to be built and the first to be restored – was unveiled in 1927. It features four tall bronze men – each representing the unique make-up of the forces who served; a vivid reminder of the Africans who died under the banner of the British Empire.
Along with similar statues in Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam and Abuja, these are the only places in the world where you will see something so lifelike at a Commission site.
They were created out of necessity.
By the time the Commission was able to gain access to East Africa and begin the difficult work of locating the First World War dead there was little to no information available about the majority of Africans who had served, including accurate death tolls or burial locations or even their names.
Without definitive proof of where, or even how many people had died, the model being drafted in Western Europe – giving every person a name on a headstone above a known grave or a memorial to the missing – would never be possible. Instead, something else was needed.
After much soul-searching, the Commission settled on bronze statues. Each one is unique, but similar in form and evokes a real sense of those being commemorated.
So much so that a mother in Mombasa was adamant that it was her boy who stood up on the pedestal and he had been transformed into “an iron man who could neither talk to her nor see her”.
To achieve this, sculptor James Stevenson studied specially commissioned photos of servicemen from the various regions to capture their likeness. Great attention to detail was paid, right down to the clothing, weapons and equipment each would have had; be they an Intelligence Corps scout or an Arab rifleman.
Such was the care, that restoration of these statues – which had no original designs or blueprints – posed a challenge. 3D scanning and careful comparisons of original photographs allowed damage and deterioration to be put right to within a millimetre.
And today, thanks to state-of-the-art technology, these striking memorials keep telling that story of those nameless men, for the next century.
“I spent most of Sunday morning lying on the floor of my room with the mattress propped against the window in case of flying glass. Throughout the morning there were repeated visits to the hotel from the rebel soldiers who shot at and robbed guests.”
This was the account of David Richardson, then a Commission horticulture manager, on a working visit to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1997. Part way through his trip to oversee replanting and renovations at our cemeteries, civil war broke out.
He and other foreign visitors were holed up in their hotel for days until UN planes were able to evacuate them.
Due to the sheer global scale of our work, world events occasionally impact us. Thankfully staff have never had as close a call as this since. The priority is always to ensure people’s safety. Stones and planting can be replaced. The long-term nature of our work allows us to bide our time when things become unsafe.
By the noughties a gradual return to Sierra Leone was possible.
Despite the forced absence, the main site in Freetown, King Tom Cemetery, was still in relatively good condition. Until a new threat emerged from the weather.
Record rainfall in 2016 saw a deluge of water hit the cemetery. The sea defences were destroyed and the site was at risk of collapsing into the ocean.
Against a backdrop of flooding and an outbreak of Ebola we had to balance complex needs.
One option, only considered in extreme circumstances, would have been to exhume the war dead away from the coast to higher ground.
But it would have been near impossible to get approval to dig up human remains during an epidemic, regardless of when they had died. Almost a quarter of the war dead buried in King Tom were killed by Spanish flu during the First World War. No one was going to question people’s nerves in the face of this new contagious disease – we had our own reminder of their costs.
“The mayor also told us the cemetery had become part of Freetown’s heritage. So we respected local wishes and stuck to an engineering solution,” said area director Rich Hills.
It took time, but an answer to the problem was found, as well as an excellent local partner to completely rebuild a brand new sea wall.
“It was one of the Commission’s most complicated engineering projects and we couldn’t have done it without local support. Making such a huge achievement in a country that we’d been evacuated from only a few decades earlier made it all the more poignant.”