Empire of the dead
In cemeteries all over the world, more than a million servicemen lie buried where they fell, commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, now in its 100th year. In Gaza, Tom Rowley meets three generations of a family who are among the 900 garde
In the War Graves Commission’s 100th year, Tom Rowley goes to Gaza to meet a family whose job is to walk among the fallen
‘We are taught to take care of all dead people, regardless of their religion or politics’
Whenever he spends a day with the dead, which is often, Ibrahim Jaradah dresses with care. Sometimes he wears a shirt and smart trousers. Other times, it’s the navy suit he wore to propose to his girlfriend last year. His brown shoes are always immaculately buffed. The dead, of course, are in no position to judge. Even so, Jaradah has never thought of wearing anything else to this cemetery, which he has known for all of his 26 years, and where he now works. ‘I must offer them respect,’ he says, by way of explanation. ‘My boots should always be clean.’
Besides, there’s the family name to think about. His father, Es sam, and his uncle, Muhammad, had already been working here for decades before Jaradah got his contract last month. And, before them, Jar ad ah’ s grandfather – Ibrahim Sr – ran the show. Next year, there will have been Jaradahs in charge here for almost 60 years.
Ibrahim Jr, who was born in the family home, next to the cemetery( as were his father and uncle ), feels the weight of expectations. ‘It’s a very big responsibility,’ he admits.
Each of the 900 gardeners who work in all corners of the world for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission feels a similar responsibility. Their task – to honour the dead of the First and Second World Wars where they fell – is a delicate one. Few, though, must handle it more delicately than the Jaradahs of Gaza, whose mission – passed down from father to son for six decades now – has been to care for a war cemetery in what often remains a war zone. There was the time a mob armed with Kalashnikovs burst into the cemetery to protest the mistreatment by coalition soldiers of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. There was the time Ibrahim Sr cowered beneath a table as an Israeli bulldozer – attempting to clear undergrowth to search for militants – toppled part of the perimeter wall, which collapsed on to six headstones. And there was the time, three years later, when shells blasted 350 of the headstones, leaving scorch marks on the grass.
Through it all, the Jaradahs have stayed put, looking after their dead – our dead, really.
Squeezed between two car repair shops, a tree-lined drive leads to a neatly clipped lawn with 3,691 headstones arranged in rows–exactly as if this were France or Belgium. In the middle of the cramped concrete prison that is Gaza (with few exceptions, no one has been allowed in or out since Hamas came to power in 2007), this is, as Muhammad puts it, ‘paradise’. Carnations and geraniums flourish; the only noises are birdsong and, five times a day, the call to prayer from the neighbouring mosque, its minaret poking up from behind the olive trees.
And now it is Ibrahim Jr’s turn to uphold the family’s high standards. His grandfather, who began working here in 1958 and soon became head gardener, proudly shows off a picture of his namesake as a toddler, clutching a little red toy car – standing in the cemetery even then. ‘I wanted him to feel an attachment,’ Essam says.
It seems to have worked. I bra himJr trained as an accountant but always wanted to work for the commission. His current contract lasts for only a year, but Essam hopes he will
succeed him as head gardener one day, just as he replaced his own father. ‘I’m a son of the cemetery,’ says Ibrahim Jr, pointing to the graves. ‘I’ve grown up with these men.’
His appointment comes at a busy time for his new employer. This year marks not only 100 years since Gen Allenby led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force through Gaza in a campaign to capture Palestine from the Turks – leaving behind many of the men in the Jaradahs’ cemetery – but also the centenary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission itself. A royal charter established the outfit, then known as the Imperial War Graves Commission, on 21 May 1917.
Today, there are cemeteries in 154 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe, Italy to Indonesia. In all, there are 1.1 million headstones to look after, as well as hundreds of memorials listing the names of 700,000 troops whose bodies were never recovered. It is, as the commission’s first director of works put it, Britain’s ‘empire of the dead’.
On one recent day, several hundred replacement border plants were being delivered to Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand, while gardeners in New Delhi were collecting fallen leaves. In Fiji, a contractor was taking pictures to send to his manager, showing his latest work. In Ghana the Princess Royal was laying a wreath at the Christiansborg War Cemetery, on the same day her husband, Sir Tim Laurence, the commission’s vice chairman, was in Cyprus, awarding a medal to a gardener who has served for 26 years.
The sun never sets on this empire, either. Just as the commission’s Asia Pacific manager, Paul Price, was picking up his umbrella and clocking off for the day, the enquiries team in Britain was getting started, taking a call from a woman trying to trace her father, an airman who died over Germany. In the words of the commission’s official history, theirs is an unending vigil.
It began by chance, when a former newspaper editor called Fabian Ware, who was posted to France with the Red Cross at the outbreak of the Great War, began to record where men had fallen. Gradually, he persuaded the War Office to make his work official, and the commission was born.
Today, it looks after all Commonwealth graves from the two world wars: the first is that of a 17-year-old called John Parr, a butcher ’s boy f rom a ter raced house i n F i nchley, nor t h London, who died before fighting began in 1914; among the last is that of John Love, a South African airman who died on 31 December 1947 (the last date eligible for burial in a War Grave, by the commission’s definition).
From a brutalist office block overlooking a roundabout in Maidenhead, Berk sh i re, t he commission spends it s £65 million annual budget maintaining each and every grave in perfect condition – no matter how far afield. It employs engravers, stonemasons and blacksmiths, but most of the staff, like the Jaradahs, are gardeners. It even claims to be the world’s largest horticultural organisation.
Its director of horticulture, David Richardson, has a particularly apt Twitter handle: @gardentheworld. From his desk in Maidenhead, he must ensure standards are maintained, even at the cemetery that is an eight-hour drive across the Namib desert or in those on the Asiago plateau in Italy, which are covered in snow for half the year and which the gardener reaches on skis. Since there are two seamen buried there, his gardeners’ remit stretches literally to Timbuktu. In his 30 years at the commission, Richardson seems to have visited most of the cemeteries himself. Once, he says, he had to be flown out of Sierra Leone during a coup. ‘Not many people are evacuated in the course of gardening,’ he says with a chuckle.
The commission is in celebratory mood: a special centenary garden at this month’s Chelsea Flower Show will mark ‘100 yea rs of g reat ga rdening ’. Yet t here ca n be no rest ing on laurels, metaphorical or otherwise: there is the equivalent of 1,000 football pitches’ worth of grass to mow every week. A 702-page horticultural manual keeps gardeners on their toes, listing all roses approved for headstone borders: ‘Before new varieties are placed on the approved list, trials are carried out and assessments made on the Rose Assessment Form.’
Over the years, little has changed: there are still two alpine plants in front of each headstone, a rose at least every four or five graves. Planting is ‘generous’, says Richardson, intended to evoke a n English count r y ga rden. All g rass must have straight edges; weeds are a no-no.
‘It’s a bit like a juggernaut,’ admits Richardson. ‘We’re tinkering at the edges.’
Each generation of the Jaradah family has passed on its horticultural knowledge to the next. Ibrahim Sr established the nurser y, between the house and the cemetery, where they grow all their own flowers. In time, he taught Essam which would flourish in the heat, and which would not. They have had success with bougainvillea, chrysanthemums and jasmine, but not with roses. ‘We wanted to grow them,’ says Ibrahim Jr, ‘but the plants did not succeed.’
The family’s horticultural roots – and its connection with the commission – go back even further than Ibrahim Sr. His father, Rabie, was also employed by the commission as a gardener, beginning work in the 1920s in a cemetery in what was then Palestine. In 1947, as plans were drawn up to create the state of Israel, the family, like thousands of other Palestinian refugees, fled to Gaza. Ibrahim Sr, who was nine at the time, remembers how they rode there on camels by moonlight. Within a decade, his father had died and he had taken over from him.
Now aged 80, Ibrahim Sr officially retired 15 years ago, but still works from dawn to dusk. He has a wheelchair, but he prefers to push his Zimmer frame around the cemetery or walk between the graves with a stick, wearing slippers and a hearing aid with his grey pinstripe suit and tie. He injured his knee in a fall six months ago but has lost none of his enthusiasm for work. ‘I don’t worry about the money,’ he says. ‘I don’t worry about the time. If I retire, I die.’
He was made MBE for his service in 1994, but was unable to le ave Ga z a for t he i nvest it ure. I ndeed, de spite tend i ng Commonwealth graves for so long, none of the family has been able to visit Britain – nor any Commonwealth countr y. Not that Ibrahim Sr thinks he has missed out. ‘I really wanted to stay here. I feel like a tree in this place. I’m rooted here.’
Many of the fallen here died tr ying to claim Palestine for Britain, in the same year the Balfour Declaration promised a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in the country. Yet the Jaradahs do not view the men whose graves they tend as political actors; merely as fellow humans, felled before their time.
‘Polit ics, polit ics, polit ics,’ says Ibrahim Sr dismissively. ‘Politics is bad.’
‘In our religion, we are taught to take care of all dead people,’ adds Essam. ‘We protect them and we love them, regardless of their religion or politics.’
Few visitors now disturb the quiet of the cemetery. Before Hamas took power, coach par ties would sometimes arrive. Now, even descendants of the dead cannot visit. It has been three years since anyone has managed to visit their forebear’s g rave. In their place, the Jaradahs have incorporated these men into their own family.
‘I love them very much,’ says Ibrahim Sr. ‘I want to protect them. They are like my children.’
After the Battle of Waterloo, bodies were piled in a mass grave. From the Falklands onwards, soldiers were flown back to Britain, to be interred on home soil. So it was only during the First and Second World Wars that the decision was taken to bur y troops in individually marked graves, where they fell.
From the beginning, no distinction was made for rank. Buglers and brigadier generals, cadets and captain s were all given the same Portland headstones, 30in by 15in. But one crucial break with uniformity was allowed: relatives of the dead could choose a personal inscription to go beneath the name. To sum up their loved one’s life, and the magnitude of their death, they were permitted up to 66 letters.
Today these relatives – and the men they lost – speak on through these words. One popular formulation begins, he gave his life… he gave his life for victory, reads one; for duty, reads another; for the empire; for the glory of god.
he gave his life for a righteous cause. That was casualty number 97,832 – Pte Wallace Henry le Poidevin from Guernsey. He was 20 when he fell, in Belgium on 14 October 1917.
he gave his life for a world peace.’ Number 2,457,110 – Canadian Sg t Ancil Baker, who died in Scot la nd in 1942, at the age of 25.
he gave his life for a comrade, wrote the relatives of Pte Alexander Rennie. And those of L/cpl George Denham. And of Tpr Francis O’brien.
he gave his life for a better england. Number 49,094 – CSM William Chamberlain of the Grenadier Guards. He died in November 1914 and is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery in France, across t he channel f rom Ja ne, t he wife he lef t behind in Leyton.
he gav e his life for you a nd me, wrote t he family of Cpl Henry Pearce.
There a re occasional glimpses of g r ief: missed beyond words, reads one headstone; i gave him, but only god knows at what cost – from his broken-hearted mother, testifies another. … from aunt nellie, … from his lov ing sister dora, … from his sorrowing wife and children.
In Gaza, the words chosen by the family of Pte C Frew of the Royal Scots Fusiliers still ring out from his headstone. Their 20-year-old was too dearly loved to be forgotten. A few rows away lies Sg t CF Thornton of the Royal Air Force, who was 22. he died that we might live, reads his inscription, mam, dad & dorothy. almondbury, huddersfield.
There are now no living survivors of the First World War: Harry Patch, the ‘last Tommy’, died in 2009. The number of veterans who can recall the second is dwindling. Graves that were once sites of pilg rimage by comrades of the fallen, by mothers and fathers, are today visited, if at all, by great-greatnephews. The War Graves Commission was once besieged by phone calls from parents anxious to find their sons’ resting places; now the enquiries team receives the most emails on Boxing Day, after conversations about family history with elderly relations over Christmas.
The method of remembrance might change – the commission is working on a new website and constantly updating its smartphone apps – but it will never cease. Its royal charter charges the commission with commemorating the dead ‘in perpetuity’.
The Jaradahs are aghast at any suggestion that it might be otherwise. ‘Their names live for evermore,’ says Ibrahim Sr, echoing the words from Ecclesiasticus that are inscribed on the giant ‘stones of remembrance’ at each cemetery. ‘It must be. It must be.’
When King George V made a pilgrimage to the war cemeteries in Flanders in 1922, he was struck, as many would be after him, by the row upon row of headstones – the scale of the cemeteries bringing home the enormity of the suffering.
‘I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war,’ he said then.
Of course, war went on. Indeed, a moving photograph from 1939 shows two uniformed squaddies in a cemetery in France, bowing their heads to the fallen of the last war before heading off to fight the next.
The Jaradahs remain hopeful that, some day, man might be ready to heed the lessons of the cemeteries. They, at least, do their bit to pass on the message. Most days, parties of schoolchild ren visit, a nd Ibra him Jr always points out t he eight Jewish g raves, with their Stars of David, which have never been disturbed in all these years of conflict. ‘We can live in the same place if we die in the same place,’ he tells them.
One day, Essam hopes, the whole of Gaza might be as tranquil – in every sense as peaceful – as their cemetery. ‘This is the past,’ he says. ‘But for us it represents the future.’
‘I love them very much. I want to protect them. They are like my children’
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, Passchendaele, Belgium
The Jaradah family, ( from left) Muhammad, Ibrahim Sr, Essam and Ibrahim Jr.
Gen Allenby’s entrance into Jerusalem, 1917. Casualties of his campaign were among the first to be buried in the Gaza cemetery
Graveside plantings in the Gaza War Cemetery are part of what is probably the world’s largest horticultural operation.