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.

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.

Despite the hot, dry weather, dotted horticulture is still possible here.

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.

The stark difference between the Asmara (pictured) and Keren is seen in the different planting schemes.

“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.

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.

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.

Mohamed has worked for CWGC for more than 20 years in Egypt.

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.

The cemetery planting is carefully picked to suit the hot and dry local 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.

Ireland is a delicate place to work for an organisation that calls on people to look back on their history.

Even just half a generation ago, we would not have received the strength of goodwill that we do today. On our new regional manager’s first weekend in post he was invited to a Remembrance Sunday commemoration ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

There he heard a poignant and powerful speech by the President of the Irish Republic Michael D. Higgins calling for all victims of the World Wars to be commemorated and remembered.

As with elsewhere, the work at hand here is about preserving a slice of heritage and allowing simple acts of individual remembrance.

Our commitment here is sparse, but no less important for it. Around a fifth of the war graves in the Republic of Ireland alone are in the grounds of churches which have since closed, become heritage sites or have found alternative use.

A single First World War headstone stands among civilian graves in Kilcommock Old Graveyard.

Some, like Colmcille’s Graveyard in County Kilkenny, are over a kilometre away from the nearest road. The only access takes you through muddy tracks and horse fields, making any visit feel like a voyage of discovery.

The day to day maintenance in the Republic of Ireland is done on the Commission’s behalf by the Office of Public Works with whom we have been in partnership with for many decades. Without the need for gardening staff we have only one employee permanently based there.

It’s Malcolm Ross’s job to inspect the work and, more importantly, maintain and build the hundreds of local relationships that have kept our 5,500 war graves in order, across more than 1,000 locations.

“If the topic comes up when I meet someone new, I make it clear I’m not here to talk politics or religion, we have one job to do and I always open conversations with the simple task at hand.”

Malcolm then needs to deal with the sheer variety that comes from being our one man on the island.

“One day I can be hiking around muddy fields, talking to farmers and trying to find a remote headstone in rural Offaly, the next I’m at a black-tie reception in central Dublin greeting ambassadors and defence attaches.”

Reaching the long-abandoned Colmcille’s Graveyard is typical of the rural spots where you can find war graves here.

There are civilian graves, many showing the family names of the local village, which can be centuries old, carved in distinctive local stone. And among them, mostly made of Irish Blue limestone, are the war graves, our permanent reminders of the war dead.

The history and politics of who and how they fought may remain a delicate matter, but their names are far from forgotten.

A thousand miles from the nearest mainland, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, sits an island airbase. There’s not much there beyond an airstrip, a weather station and a NASA telescope that combs the skies.

But nestled on the windy shores of Ascension Island is also one of the world’s most isolated island cemeteries.

It contains seven Commonwealth war graves. Some were buried when their ship passed through, others were stationed here. One was a South African labourer. Another, a telegraph operator from South Shields, UK.

In the distance behind the graveyard is a narrow runway. It’s from here the monthly plane that links to Ascension Island takes off.

Today, civilians can only reach the island via St Helena – a full 800 miles to the south – on the monthly flight that links the two.

CWGC’s area manager Simon Fletcher recently took the long journey to check the condition of the war graves on both islands and re-establish local connections.

“It was a race against the sunset as soon as we landed in Ascension,” he said. Within hours, he had to be back on the same plane or risk being stranded for a month.

“I only had about an hour of daylight to rush to the small cemetery and see what condition the war graves were in before rushing back to the airstrip to get home.”

Thankfully all was well. He returned safe in the knowledge those seven men, however far from home they may be, were still lying in peace in a clean, well-tended site, thanks to the generosity of the RAF personnel stationed there.

On St Helena he checked for another 14 war graves. This time maintained by the friendly team who tend the sloping churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral on our behalf.

Aside from periodic inspections like Simon’s, the only practical way to maintain remote sites like these are through strong local relationships.

“Even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean we find people who are willing to help us remember those who died.”

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.”