Yesudanam Mathew, from Velapula, Cuddapah, was a sick berth first class attendant in the Royal Indian Navy. He lost his life at 22 in the Second World War. His body now rests in the Kirkee War Cemetery in Pune. Millions of soldiers who lost their lives in the two World Wars are commemorated in 23,000 cemeteries and memorials in 150 countries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Over 160,000 of these dead were from undivided India.
At the Kirkee War Cemetery, 1,668 military dead of the Second World War rest in peace on the banks of the Mula River. Most are British, but there are 151 Indians as well as Americans, Nigerians, other Africans and French. There are also 12 stone stelae bearing names of the 1,800 who died during the First World War.
“There are 62,000 [gravestones and memorials] in India for the soldiers of both World Wars,” says the CWGC regional manager for India, who does not want to be named, “of which 10,700 are in war cemeteries.”
Kirkee is like an oasis in a desert. The road outside is busy and dusty. The cemetery is on land belonging to the Khadki Cantonment Board, and is managed and maintained by the CWGC. Established in 1952, it houses war graves moved here from across western and central India.
The simple, well-made gravestones are arranged with military precision. Each bears a soldier’s name, rank, age at death, nationality, and the seal of his regiment. Some also carry messages from friends and family. R Bayes served in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps and died at 23. On his gravestone, his family inscribed: “In a garden of treasured memories, we meet our loved one”.
At the entrance is the Stone of Remembrance. Its inscription reads, “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”. There is also a Cross of Sacrifice. Both are standard features of CWGC cemeteries. There is a carpet of beautifully kept turf, and cascades of pink and white bougainvillea. Trellises with creepers shade a walkway.
Despite being open to the public, there are very few visitors to the cemetery. “Today’s generation may not know that their war heroes rest here,” says M S Bahanwal, the manager. “Only 15-20 people visit in a month. I am serving here for 20 years and what I like is that there is no discrimination [on the basis] of caste, religion or rank. All have found a place and all the gravestones are uniform. [These soldiers] all served their countries and some lost their lives in their youth. It is sad. But this is our way of doing something for them.”
Bahanwal manages 11 cemeteries — at Alibaug, Deolali, Ahmednagar, Igatpuri, Belgaum, Nagpur (two) and Secunderabad (three). All these are either fully managed by the CWGC (like Kirkee), or are civil cemeteries partly managed by the CWGC.
Kirkee is managed by five gardeners who work on the guidelines of Simond Fletcher, the CWGC’s technical horticulture manager in the UK head office. The CWGC follows internal specifications which are available to the staff in a manual, with the objective that all CWGC cemeteries should have the same look.
“We renovate lawns once a year to keep them looking fresh and tender,” says a Kirkee gardener. Part of their job is to nurture the “anti-splash” plants — which prevent soil from splashing the gravestones — and “dot” plants between stones, like rose, aster and duranta.
It costs Rs 30-35 lakh a year to maintain the cemetery, including Rs 20,000-30,000 a month for each gardener. Funds come from CWGC, which is funded by the governments of Commonwealth nations, which share costs in proportion to the number of their graves.
At Kirkee, similar to other CWGC memorials, there are no ceremonies, prayers or memorial marches, no VIP visits. “On November 11 each year,” however, the day the First World War ended, “a special service is held at the Delhi Cemetery Church or the Delhi Defence Area Church, for First and Second World War soldiers,” says the CWGC regional manager. “Similar ceremonies are held around the globe.”