Secluded in a quiet woodland, next to an abandoned Soviet era military base, 15 miles south of Berlin, lie the graves of 206 Indian servicemen of the First World War. Dotted between each headstone is a small burst of colour from the spread of flowers that are synonymous with our work.

Visitors would be forgiven for thinking Zehrensdorf Indian Cemetery had always been this way.

But when the Iron Curtain lifted in the 1990s the Commission was faced with a disaster zone. A World War and a Cold War had destroyed the cemetery. Not one headstone was left standing.

Almost nothing remained of the peaceful space that had been created to remember these men.

These Indian servicemen died while prisoners of war, captured by the Germans on the Western Front.

They were held at two camps at Zossen-Zehrensdorf which included large numbers of Allied PoWs of African and Asian descent. They were ‘show camps’ with better conditions than others and included the German Empire’s first mosque built specially for the Muslim prisoners. Many prisoners were then the focus of studies by curious anthropologists, keen to research the international mix of captives.

After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, CWGC returned to Zehrensdorf to find it completely destroyed.

After the war the Commission formalised the Indian cemetery at Zehrensdorf which formed part of a larger cemetery containing allied war dead of the First World War.

Old visitor books from the cemetery in the 1930s show the local fascination with these men from far off lands continued between the wars, though comments were increasingly accompanied by Nazi sentiments.

By the time the Second World War had drawn to a close the Commission hoped it might be possible to return. But a new Cold War between East and West soon put an end to those hopes. We were only able to return long enough to find out that it was already damaged.

Held firmly behind the Iron Curtain staff were unable to gain proper access.

When they eventually returned after the Fall of the Berlin Wall they found the site had been all but wiped off the face of the Earth. But, underneath the overgrowth and debris, in spite of tanks using the area for training exercises, the beams that once held headstones were somehow intact.

The old damaged Stone of Remembrance was donated to a nearby museum.

One by one, once the area had been cleared of explosives, we were able to assure ourselves that no human remains had been affected. Each grave could still be marked in its original position. New headstones were produced, and great efforts were taken to ensure everything was replaced exactly.

The final, heavy, piece of the puzzle was installing a brand new Stone of Remembrance – all seven tonnes of Portland stone. The only evidence that remains of the damage is the original Stone of Remembrance, preserved at a nearby museum.

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.

The original Port Tewfik Memorial overlooked the busy entrance to the Suez Canal.

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.

Only one small piece of the crouching tigers can be seen intact.

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.

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.

Just getting to work is a real challenge for one of our Cyprus-based teams.

The cemetery in question is less than an hour from our Mediterranean head office and sits just on the outskirts of the country’s capital.

The difficulty comes from the important invisible lines that surround Nicosia War Cemetery, or Wayne’s Keep as it’s often known.

Since the 1970s the disputed border between the southern and northern parts of the island has run right across the cemetery.

Borders full of colour are currently not possible to maintain due to limited access within the buffer zone.

One side believes it sits in the buffer zone, the other, that it sits firmly inside their territory.

In places, the buffer zone is so untouched by human influence that species thought long extinct have been spotted.

Throughout half a century of land disputes, the Commission’s commitment has been difficult but not impossible to fulfil. Within this sliver of no man’s land, we are tasked with maintaining the graves of more than 200 Second World War dead and a series of memorials.

Next to them are close to 600 British military dead, servicemen stationed on the island after the War when it was still part of the British Empire or as part of the United Nations task force deployed to enforce the uneasy peace between north and south. CWGC continues to take responsibility for their graves on behalf of the MOD.

The less vibrant, but lower maintenance, plants currently in Nicosia War Cemetery while access remains sporadic.

To undertake even the most minor of work to the various sections of this cemetery, staff and contractors must gain special permission and be accompanied by a UN escort. Armed guards on the northern side are always present.

Surely there are few other gardeners in the world who mow the lawn under such watchful eyes.

As tensions rise and fall CWGC’s work continues to get caught in the mix. On more than one occasion people have been asked to leave the site by armed guards. For those living on the island, the presence of the border and the buffer zone is a part of daily life. We are in no position to challenge or question the wider situation.

Instead, we must continue to work peacefully with all involved to ensure those buried in the crosshairs of today’s dispute are not forgotten.

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.”