A grave reminder

William Shakespeare is buried in Jerusalem, Harry Potter was killed in Hebron.

October 19, 2006 08:58
grave feach 88 298

grave feach 88 298. (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)


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in 1939, and Peace was killed here in 1917. These are just three of 16,838 graves maintained by the Commonwealth Wargraves Commission in Israel A walk through the aisles in Israel's revered National Cemetery, Mt. Herzl, reveals a rudimentary account of the state's political and military history. The rows of tombstones lay testament to a number of persons who shaped the history of modern Israel. These include an assortment of philosophers, former Prime Ministers and military heroes including such notable figures as the cemetery's name sake, Theodore Herzl and others like Zeev Jabotinsky, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol and Yitzhak Rabin. In addition to these well-known personalities, there are the thousands of lesser-known soldiers' graves who fought to obtain and preserve a state for the Jewish people. But what of such names like William Bain, Owen Cameron Dumerton, and Frank Glancy? These servicemen from the British Commonwealth are buried not on Mt. Herzl, but in cemeteries scattered throughout Israel strategically located next to major battle points from wars past. Their individual deeds beyond the immediate circumstances of their deaths are often unknown. Depending on one's relation to them and the time period in which they were killed, they might be regarded as either contributing to the establishment of the modern state or willfully preventing it. Yet their collective numbers nearing 17,000 reveal an intriguing military history predating the founding of modern Israel during World Wars I and II. Bringing to light this history are initiatives by the British War Memorial Project and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), both non-profit, British organizations set-up to track the graves of British servicemen belonging to the once vast British imperial empire. Established in 1917 through a Royal Charter, the CWGC is charged with maintaining records of the 1.7 million soldiers who served in the British military (as citizens of Britain or from any of the countries in its imperial empire) and were killed during WWI and WWII. Its responsibilities include marking and maintaining the graves of these soldiers and building memorials to those who have no known graves. Separately in 2001, the British War Graves Project was founded by British military cadet, Richard Howman, to create a photo archive of all service personnel's' graves and memorials as a means to allow relatives and friends of the deceased to view their tombstones without having to travel to foreign countries. Pictures of the headstones are taken almost exclusively by volunteers both by special request and as par for the course. Since its founding five years ago, the project has expanded to 50 countries with a cadre of more than 1,000 volunteers. Now in the reserves, Howman who also works part-time as a photographer, explained that the War Graves Project was continuing the tradition established by the British Graves Registration unit during WWI whose job it was to mark and record the dead. Back then, unit members would often snap a picture of the grave and send it back to family members in the UK, Howman said. Today, not only does the War Graves Project send digital photos to family members, but pictures are also uploaded onto the organization's website. "I just think it is a profoundly important thing to do. We have the technology to do it and bring these images into a form unto themselves," Howman said. Volunteers in Israel have their work cut out for them as there are close to 17,000 mostly WW I era graves and memorials spread out over 25 cemeteries in the country alone. Today most countries, including the UK, repatriate fallen soldiers to be buried in their home country. During the last World Wars however, the general policy was to bury a soldier as close as possible to the location in which he fell. IT IS not surprising then, that the four war cemeteries which contain the largest number of Commonwealth graves (located in Haifa, Jerusalem, Ramle and Beersheba) were also the sites of some of the most heated battles fought between the British, her allies and the Ottoman Turks during the Great War. Consider the decisive Battle of Beersheba in which British forces under the command of General Edmund Allenby successfully broke the Turkish defensive Gaza-Beersheba line in the first week of November 1917. Also known as the Third Battle of Gaza because two earlier attempts (the First Battle of Gaza and The Second Battle of Gaza) to break through the Turkish lines had ended in defeat for the British, the victory allowed General Allenby to reach Jerusalem by December of that year. Many of the causalities from the first two battles of Gaza are buried in the Deir El Blah and Gaza War cemeteries which contain approximately 724 and 3,217 Commonwealth casualties respectively from WWI. Much of the credit for victory in the Battle of Beersheba is given to the Australian light horseman who charged headlong across 5 km of open terrain straight into the waiting Turkish machine guns holding the lines in Beersheba. The valiant attack took place late in the day on October 31, as the situation for British soldiers was becoming increasingly desperate. Almost completely devoid of supplies, the British army was on the brink of another defeat and impending disaster. The charge by the 800 Australian cavalry in a last attempt to take the city before nightfall was considered so daring and magnificent that homage is still paid to these soldiers today. Causalities from this battle which eventually routed out the Turks and opened up access to Jerusalem for the first time in many years are buried in the Beersheba cemetery. ISRAEL'S STRUGGLE for independence against the British army in the aftermath of World War II is also represented in the war cemeteries. British fatalities from the King David bombing carried out by the Irgun in 1946 are buried in the Ramle War cemetery. The same cemetery also contains the remains of the two British sergeants taken captive and killed by the Irgun in response to the British executives of Jewish Irgun soldiers. Photographing many of these graves has fallen to the War Project's most active volunteer in Israel, British-born Asher Thompson. A military history buff in his own right, Thompson became interested in WWI history when he discovered that both of his grandfathers had served out WWI fighting in France. Having come to Israel in 1981, Thompson recruits volunteers to photograph the graves as well as taking numerous pictures himself. According to Thompson, all of Beersheba cemetery's roughly 1200 Commonwealth graves have been photographed and nearly 2200 gravestones from the Ramle, Jerusalem and Haifa cemeteries have been digitally photographed and sent in for eventual publication on the War Project's website. "I check the picture off against names on the list and move on to the next picture - otherwise you break down with all these lives that have been cut short," he said describing the methodical approach with which he undertakes his job. For many of the living relatives of the fallen soldiers, however, the project is far more than a history lesson, and Thompson considers this element to be one of the most important benefits of his undertaking. He recalled one quiet morning in the Ramle cemetery when he was taking pictures and suddenly came upon a family looking unsuccessfully for a grave. The family had flown in especially the day before from England bringing with them a 75-year old family member who desired to see the grave of her brother, killed in 1945 at the age of 20. Because of his work, Thompson happened to know where the grave was - much to the appreciation of the family. For most people though, the War Graves Projects helps those who can't make the trip to Israel. "It's a lot of money and a big distance. The idea is to let the internet do the work," Thompson said. ENGLAND'S DEBBIE Corbett is one those people for whom a trip to Israel wasn't feasible but wanted information on her grandmother's brother who died in the Royal Army's parachute regiment during WWII. "The thing with Israel is that it's not a place where my relatives would visit to take photographs, so it's lovely that there are people there than can do this for us," she explained. Not all of the cemeteries are so easily accessible, however. The Deir El Belah and Gaza War cemeteries which are located in the Gaza Strip cannot be readily visited by the War Project volunteers. Issues of accessibility have also presented challenges to Israeli citizens who had relatives in the Royal Army that fought in countries considered unsafe for Israelis to visit today. Libya is one such an example. Lior Shur wanted to help his 70-year old mother find information about her father who fought in the Royal Airforce during WWII. Stationed in Libya where he was fighting the Italians, Shur's grandfather succumbed to typhoid fever. Shur contacted Thompson for help who finally came up with a plan to have members of the British consulate in Libya take a picture of the headstone during the annual worldwide memorial service held by Commonwealth embassies. "The pictures were really amazing," Shur said. "Throughout all of these years, my mother really had no hope of ever seeing her father's grave because of the location. If it had been Europe, of course we would have been there." Others see in the project a greater message about the consequences of war. Andrew Fretwell is the regional emissary for the CWGC and was posted to Israel five years ago. "I would hope that people would look at these cemeteries and say - this is what war does, this is the result of war," he said.

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