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.
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 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.
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.
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.
In Canada, the Commission’s biggest issue is geography, simply put there’s an awful lot of it.
Covering all this ground to ensure every war grave remains in good condition is a time-consuming job. At times it calls for our local team to become intrepid explorers in their own country.
More than 1,700 locations – 60 per cent of our Canadian sites – contain just a single war grave. The long and cold Canadian winters mean that for more than half the year it’s not practical to reach them.
When the weather allows, a typical day can take in a dozen or more remote and abandoned cemeteries in rural country. Staff check for access, the condition of the stone and that the name remains clear, before heading onto the next.
One of those is the grave of Private Donald Pollock. He is buried next to his twin brother on the family’s isolated old farmstead, near the hamlet of Neidpath in Saskatchewan.
The pair died on the same day, 15 November 1918. Donald had returned from the First World War bringing Spanish flu to their remote home. As he was still serving at the time of his death, Donald is commemorated by CWGC. His brother Alexander, a civilian, is at his side under a private memorial.
Finding this spot is only practical with the help of the current landowner. Hours of traipsing about with a GPS is replaced with a short ride on the back of his quadbike.
Dominique Boulais, of CWGC’s Canada and Americas Area described his last inspection of the site: “There was only one padded seat and it was for the driver; I sat on the steel grill facing the back and receiving all the mud flying from the rear wheels and breathing the fumes from the exhaust pipe. I made sure I kept my mouth shut during the fifteen-minute ride.” Once there, in a dip between folds in the land, are the headstones of the twin brothers.
“There wasn’t a single sound except the wind.”
The effect on families like the Pollocks, to have their son returned home from the First World War, only to later die of illness or injury, would have been devastating. That human cost has left a legacy for CWGC that comes with challenges that remain to this day.
Across long distances the Commission continues to return to the homes of thousands of Canadian men like Private Pollock, one by one, making sure their sacrifice is remembered, for evermore.
Nowhere else in the UK is the challenge of access to war graves more obvious than in the Scottish Highlands and islands.
CWGC’s Scotland team often combine their commute with ferries and planes as they seek out isolated graveyards, far from the mainland. A bicycle can be an essential piece of kit when arriving on an island without cars to inspect remote headstones.
The dead they look after include islanders who served and returned, only to die of injury or illness. Many are pilots or seamen who died in accidents or whose bodies were washed ashore, far from home.
Maintenance trips are constantly rescheduled around narrow weather windows when it’s unsafe to land on small remote islands, like Fair Isle, where just a handful of war graves lie.
The Commission’s traditional Portland stone will hardly be found here. Granite is one of the few substances that stands a chance of surviving the climate.
The challenge isn’t new – archive documents from 1945 show one former employee’s concerns that the vast spread was too much to handle.
His preferred solution: an island-hopping gardener, equipped with a motorbike and a lawnmower in a sidecar.
The difficulties in Scotland come high up in the mountains too.
Three miles from the nearest road and more than two thousand feet above the nearest village, lies the isolated grave of six airmen.
They are buried on a rocky plateau near the summit of Ben More Assynt, 20 miles north-east of Ullapool.
All of them died in April 1941 after their plane crashed. When their bodies were later found by a local shepherd, he buried them together using parts of their destroyed plane for a make-shift cross.
By 1944 the Commission had arranged for a temporary memorial cairn to be erected above the graves. It was unthinkable at the time to install anything more permanent in such a place.
To give families somewhere to mourn, a special memorial was placed by the Commission in the nearest village of Inchnadamph. A slowly growing pile of stones, added to by the odd passing walker, was all that remained up on the high mountain slopes.
And that would have been where the story ended.
Until in 2010, when a local mountain guide approached us. He had heard concerns the exact location of the crash site could get lost to time.
And so, with the help of the MOD, a 600kg special CWGC granite marker was lowered into place by helicopter – possibly the most remote war grave in all of the UK.
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.
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.”