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.