Pounding heat and flash floods – the weather in Myanmar poses the Commonwealth War Graves Commission its fair share of difficulties.

Our team here is responsible for maintaining nearly 12,000 graves, but the graves look a little different to those familiar with our work in Europe. Each one is marked by a bronze plaque set into the ground on a pedestal of stone.

These plaques weather better than Portland headstones in the intense heat and the rain of South East Asia.

In Yangon – known to the British during the Second World War as Rangoon – we face opposing problems from the weather.

Rangoon War Cemetery, in the busy city centre, gets regularly submerged by flash floods. Our gardeners have to sweep away debris on a daily basis in the rainy season.

Yet just one hour away on the outskirts, at Taukkyan War Cemetery, we face a constant battle against parched ground in the brutal hot and dry weather.

Taukkyan is a vast cemetery with almost 6,500 graves. They are carefully laid out in rows around the distinctive shape of the Rangoon Memorial, which lists almost 27,000 missing war dead.

The memorial is beginning to show signs of its age and we are preparing to restore it.

In its shadow, lies a more recent row of bronze plaques. They sit in a special plot, naming the 16 men aboard Dakota KN584.

The plane crashed in September 1945 killing all aboard. Only recently was it found they had been buried deep in the jungle, making recovery impractical. Instead, their relatives now have somewhere accessible to pay their respects with a row of special memorials in our cemetery.

The last of our three sites in Myanmar is Thanbyuzayat. The cemetery sits a stone’s throw from the end of the infamous death railway.

This cross-country route was built by forced labour, including prisoners of war, during the Second World War, in often gruelling conditions. It has been said that a man died for every sleeper laid across the 415-kilometre (258 mi) route of the railway. Many of those who died lie at rest in CWGC’s care.

And as a reminder of what they went through, visitors to Thanbyuzayat will see a handmade wooden cross in the cemetery’s entrance, assembled out of those infamous railway sleepers by prisoners.

Cracked headstones and torn up turf, all courtesy of our least wanted guest in Singapore – wild boar.

The creatures prove a real problem for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The open land of Kranji War Cemetery, on the outskirts of the Asian city-state, is an appealing place for them.

For decades gardeners here have had to look out for boar and the damage they cause to the cemetery they care for. More than 4,000 Second World War dead are buried here. Another 25,000 are named on a series of memorials.

From high up on this vantage point you can look out and see where the Japanese Army came from in that fateful February of 1942, during the Battle of Singapore.

Christopher Leong, our head gardener at Kranji, is all too familiar with the challenges of preserving this reminder of all those lost lives.

His team take seriously any sighting of a wild boar, immediately evacuating the site.

Specialist fencing runs deep underground to prevent all but the most determined of invaders from getting through.

It’s not just animals that put pressure on this historic site. The weather plays its own part too, bringing trees down in the monsoon.

The Singapore Memorial sits on the highest point of the hillside cemetery now. The iconic design pays tribute to the air force, navy and army – the wings of a plane, the fin of a submarine, the rows of soldiers stood to attention.

Weathering has already taken its toll on the memorial. CWGC is restoring the structure, tearing off the old waterproof layer on its roof, and replacing it with more robust modern materials.

While the wild boar might be a dangerous visitor, the cemetery still draws in people wanting to pay their respects. Every year thousands turn out for the Remembrance Sunday service, just the kind of guests our founders had in mind, all those years ago.

The closest you can ever get to visiting Tbilisi British Cemetery is by knocking, politely, on the door of a Georgian family home, and being guided through to their back garden.

The cemetery itself no longer exists. All that remains is a marker in this garden, installed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 2000, to record where it is believed the cemetery once stood.

Shortly after the First World War this is where 31 men’s stories ended. They were far from home, here to occupy the country on behalf of the Allied Powers while the post-war map of the world was still being drafted.

The original grave markers have all been lost to time. Access to Georgia after 1919 was impossible for the Commission due to Communist rule.

While a small group of remaining British ex-pats helped tend to the cemetery into the 1930s, the Second World War and then the Cold War made it too challenging to sustain.

CWGC was stuck at an arm’s length until well after the fall of the Iron Curtain. By the time we returned we were faced with the sprawling suburbs of Tbilisi, where there had once been an isolated cemetery.

In the interim we had not forgotten those men and their names were engraved on the Haida Pasha Memorial in Istanbul.

Despite being 800 miles away from Tbilisi it was the nearest place where CWGC could guarantee long-term continued access. The shifting borders and political instability caused by the World Wars impacted our global task long after the conflicts ended.

While world events have left us with this odd legacy of making a pilgrimage to a family garden, it’s not just the Commission’s team who visit this home. Dignitaries and relatives return every Remembrance Sunday to pay their respects after knocking, politely of course, on this Georgian family’s garage door.

A few hours after the storm passed Kengo and his team set to work. The strong winds had ripped up trees and impaled them in the cemetery’s neat lawn. Elsewhere in Japan the outcome was even worse.

Yokohama, a neighbouring city of Tokyo, like much of the region, suffered from the effects of the deadly Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019.

As well as the serious loss of life, power and property, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s only war cemetery in Japan fell victim too.

Thankfully all staff and their families were unharmed. Only hours before it struck, Kengo Kobayashi, CWGC’s Japan country manager, was in the cemetery, giving a video tour and discussing which trees might be at risk.

Kengo Kobayashi, CWGC’s Japan country manager, leads a team of five gardeners at Yokohama

The next day his team set to work quickly clearing up the aftermath.

In calmer times this space boasts an abundance of life; flowers and trees that mix native Asian species with more regional varieties that reflect the Commonwealth war dead buried below.

Created after the Second World War, Yokohama contains the remains and memorials for more than 2,000 war dead.

Most were Prisoners of War who died in captivity in grueling conditions. Their lives and deaths are now preserved in this parkland setting amid the largest urban area on the planet.

Nearby, hundreds of thousands of rugby fans have poured through the doors of the Yokohama International Stadium during the Rugby World Cup; many Brits, Australians and New Zealanders among them.

Yokohama is divided into five sections for the Commonwealth and post-war, pictured here Australia.

While their thoughts will have been on tries and tackles, our Japanese staff were watering and weeding the Commonwealth graves of those fans’ forebears – men who only a few generations ago would have been enemies.

And among those graves there is buried a true friend. In the non-war plot lies former Commission gardener, Len Harrop MBE. Ex-soldier and guardian of this cemetery from 1952 to 1986.

From the harrowing work of recovering bodies to cultivating plants, his life spanned the battlefields of Normandy to Yokohama War Cemetery. And just as he did for more than three decades, when the storm winds passed, the latest generation of CWGC staff returned to make sure that everyone buried there could continue to rest in peace.

The challenge CWGC faces in Iraq is huge – it’s the equivalent of building a new Tyne Cot Memorial, in the middle of the desert, in a country where safe access can’t always be guaranteed.

And that’s just looking at solving one of the 19 locations in the country we’re responsible for. Most have been damaged or deteriorated due to recent conflicts.

Sadly, Iraq is no stranger to war. During the First World War, then known as Mesopotamia, it was the scene of the Empire’s largest operations outside of Europe and saw its worst defeat at the Siege of Kut.

Today Iraqis live with the fallout of more recent upheavals. The Commission has had to stop and start here on many occasions. In 1990 we formally withdrew. It was simply unsafe.

In our absence many sites have deteriorated. The soil in the region has such high levels of salt that, without preventative work, it seeps into headstones making them so brittle they can be virtually crumbled by hand.

The Basra Memorial was moved out into the desert outside the city by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s.

The largest memorial in the country is the Basra Memorial. It originally stood at the side of the Shatt al-Arab River on the edge of the city but was moved in the late 1990s by Saddam Hussein’s regime into the desert.

After decades without regular maintenance, the memorial is showing signs of age. However, it’s not just repair works that are needed here – it’s missing 30,000 names, too, the equivalent of the Tyne Cot Memorial.

When first unveiled in 1929 the names of most of the men of the Indian Army who it commemorates were not accurate. Records at the time hadn’t been properly compiled and the Commission could only be provided with the names of Indian officers, and British officers and men.

Since then an accurate list of the names have since been compiled and all lie in the CWGC’s Iraq Roll of Honour, on display in the UK, waiting for a time when conditions on the ground allow a more permanent solution.

Workers begin the long task of restoring Habbaniya War Cemetery, CWGC’s latest renovation project in Iraq.

However, there is hope. Step by step, progress is being made in Iraq.

In 2012, during a gap in hostilities, Kut War Cemetery was completely renovated. Before and after images are testament to the success. In 2019, the most recent project has also succeeded.

Within the walls of Habbaniya, a former RAF base that’s now operated by the Iraqi Army, the war cemetery was in almost complete disrepair.

Now, nearly 300 brand new headstones have been installed and the entire site renovated, only made possible by finding a trusted local contractor.

The Commission has to play the long game at times. When your task lasts forever, you never know what progress the future might bring.

We now know more about this site.
Read our report into historical acts of non-commemoration.

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.

Despite missile strikes, power cuts and make do and mend machinery – CWGC’s war cemeteries in the Gaza Strip remain carefully tended oases of calm.

The region’s instability spills onto the global news on a weekly basis, impacting the daily lives of those who live and work there. But the Commission isn’t in the game of politics. We’re gardeners, and guardians of heritage.

When chaos reigns outside the walls of our cemeteries here, the local team does as much as they can to maintain a sense of calm and normality within.

The setbacks they face are significant. Sometimes our sites get caught in the crossfire. Gaza War Cemetery has been hit three times in the last decade alone; on one occasion nearly 300 headstones were damaged.

A former gardener used to talk of once chasing armed militants away with his broom. Today, we insist staff look after themselves first. But even when things are calmer they face continual issues.

The Gaza Strip suffers from major water and electricity shortages – a big problem when your job is maintaining a garden cemetery. The last time petrol ran out, staff modified machinery to run on gas.

Just getting equipment through the tight border controls can be a problem. Something as simple as a replacement lawnmower can take months, sometimes years, to arrive.

Once it’s safe to return, staff are quick to clean up and begin repairs.

In spite of all of this, our dedicated and resourceful team continue to do the Commission proud. On top of the impressive standards, the cemeteries are used as a teaching space too.

In an area where conflict and loss are all too fresh in people’s minds, team member Ibrahim Jaradah – the fourth generation of his family to work for us – guides groups of local children, reminding them that every life lost, no matter the cause, is something that should be remembered.

He said: “Our responsibility is not easy. Our task is to preserve these cemeteries against many challenges. We feel the weight of expectations, but we also feel the importance of our work.”