05/20/2014 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Some Corner of a Foreign Field, Part II: British and Commonwealth War Cemeteries on the Looney Front

If Rupert Brooke, the British World War I poet whose sonnet The Soldier immortalised the sacrifice made by the hundreds of thousands who fell in 'some corner of a foreign field,' lies alone in a solitary grave on a Greek island, he is the very rare exception.

As the world this year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War -- the war to end all wars -- thousands of cemeteries around the world will be the focus of special attention, among them those holding the remains of the fallen from the former British Empire.


Commonwealth war cemetery in Lae, Papua New Guinea

Managed by the Commonwealth Graves Commission -- comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa -- these exquisitely manicured cemeteries and battle memorials seek to ensure that 1.7 million service members who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. In all they dot 23,000 locations in 153 countries.

The Commission was established by Royal Charter as the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 at a time when the killing fields of Europe were drenched with the blood of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the then British Empire.


Lae Cemetery

On a single day alone, July 1 the previous year, 20,000 British soldiers were killed in the opening barrage of the 141-day-long Battle of the Somme in France. The Somme region now hosts over 410 Commonwealth cemeteries and memorials, including the Thiepval Memorial to 72,191 missing British and South African troops.

As the construction of World War II cemeteries was completed in the 1960s, the Commission traded Imperial for Commonwealth in its title, reflecting changing times -- and Britain's changed status.

Some of the more remarkable cemeteries are those you come across in far-flung lands when you least expect it.


Another Lae view


Entry to Lae cemetery

In the exuberant equatorial wilds of Papua New Guinea, beneath the mountain walls that close in on Lae, the town where American aviator Amelia Earhart was last seen flying out on her abortive way home, beautifully tended lawns embrace the remains of 2,818 WWII fallen, mainly Australians, mostly crosses, a few Stars of David, many barely out of their teens.


Christian grave


Jewish grave

Two won the highest military award for valour, the Victoria Cross. There are the graves, too, of several British seamen and two soldiers, and separate sections for Papua New Guineans and Indians, many unidentified. In all, Papua New Guinea holds 10 such cemeteries and memorials, the remains ranging from 3,123 to just one.


Grave with Victoria Cross


Grave of a 19-year-old


A Papuan's grave

Thousands of miles to the west, on the northern tip of Madagascar, the town of Antsiranana is sometimes compared to Rio de Janeiro, with a barren hump of an isle in the bay called Sugar Loaf Mountain. Of course, it bears not the slightest resemblance to the lush Brazilian city, being in an arid, dusty area.

Arid, that is, except for the Diego Suarez War Cemetery. Here the remains of 314 Commonwealth soldiers are honoured with rows of crosses and the occasional Star of David on a manicured sward so neat it could be an English churchyard.

They fell in Operation Ironclad and the WWII campaign to capture the world's fourth largest island from pro-Nazi Vichy French and protect Allied lines of communication in the Indian Ocean.


Dusk view from Nanyuki cemetery towards Mt. Kenya

On mainland Africa, beneath the soaring crags of Mt. Kenya clawing away at the sky, 196 WWII Commonwealth soldiers who fell in the campaign to drive the occupying Italians out of neighbouring Ethiopia have found eternal rest. In all, Kenya hosts 38 such cemeteries, containing from over 2,200 graves to just one.


Daytime view from cemetery towards Mt. Kenya

Ethiopia itself has four such cemeteries. Down the road past the railway station square in Dire Dawa, past mauve, red and yellow flowering trees, past a long wall of anti-AIDS murals, lies a cemetery that is not one of Brooke's grassy field oases. Here a small pebbled yard holds 68 graves.


Dire Dawa cemetery

Many inscriptions are in Arabic script, some have crosses, and they commemorate soldiers from African regiments fighting against the Italians on behalf of the equally colonial British Empire. At the far back, against a wall and a small domed memorial, stone pillars above the inscription Their glory shall not be blotted out memorialise three British Royal Air Force men whose graves are now lost.

Outside, the long wall murals memorialise Ethiopia's current culling war -- against HIV. In one, a whore hands a packet of condoms to a man sitting on a bed, his trousers coming down. In another a doctor takes a blood test.


Prostitute offers condom to john in HIV/AIDS campaign mural


Mural doctor tests for HIV virus

By the same author: Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.