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War history: The war graves that are closer to home than many of us realise

12:00 23 March 2014

The Runnymede Memorial to the missing. More than 100,000 missing naval, merchant navy and air force casualties are commemorated on the commission’s great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede.

The Runnymede Memorial to the missing. More than 100,000 missing naval, merchant navy and air force casualties are commemorated on the commission’s great memorials at Chatham, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Tower Hill and Runnymede.

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Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, explains that evidence of the human cost of the First World War is much closer to home in Suffolk than most of us think.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot in Ipswich is a fine example of a UK war cemetery in the heart of Suffolk. Photograph: CWGCThe Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot in Ipswich is a fine example of a UK war cemetery in the heart of Suffolk. Photograph: CWGC

At last, the weather is beginning to improve and it looks like we can say that spring has sprung in East Anglia. Battlefield touring is in the main an outdoor venture, so most people wait until improving weather signals the beginning of the touring season.

The rising level of public interest in the First World War centenary excites us at Galloway, and we are looking forward to taking more people to the battlefields in 2014 than we have in the past. The extensive media coverage of centenary has certainly captured many people’s imagination and, as a result, almost every day we are talking to people about how they can research their family connections or join one of our regular tours of the Western Front.

Galloway itineraries are always a carefully balanced mix of battlefields, museums, local culture and war cemeteries. In our planning, we are always aware there is a danger that cemeteries can lose their impact and meaning if they dominate an entire tour. They do, however, have their place. For many, they are a physical and therefore tangible reference point to the events of the past.

If you are keen to start exploring the First World War before you come on one of our tours, you don’t have to cross the English Channel. Evidence of the war and the human experience of it are probably much closer to home than you think. Your local war memorial is of course an obvious place to start, but why not also take a look in your nearest churchyard?

In previous articles I have talked about local links to the Western Front and the bond between Ipswich and Arras in particular. Regular readers will be well aware of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in France and Belgium, but I wonder how many realise how much work the commission does here in the UK. It is a general misconception that all our war graves are scattered across the globe in what the poet Rupert Brooke romantically described as a corner of a foreign field.

You may therefore be surprised to learn that more than 300,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two world wars are actually commemorated in the United Kingdom. The commission administers graves that are spread across 13,000 UK locations.

The majority of those commemorated in the UK are men and women who died at home in military hospitals. Others may have died in training accidents or air raids, or at sea in coastal waters, their bodies washed ashore.

Certainly East Anglia has its share of aircrew and naval graves from both world wars. These include a number of German service personnel who were killed while trying to penetrate UK defences.

Suffolk has 249 cemeteries that contain over 2,000 First World War graves. If you are going to look into an individual story, the CWGC website (http://www.cwgc.org) is a treasure trove. A few minutes of research can help you humanize the names on the headstones in your local churchyard and understand what brought the men there.

It is worth remembering that it is not just Germans who are buried a long way from home; a large number of graves are of men from distant corners of the British Empire and the Commonwealth. Thousands of Australians, Canadians, Indians, South Africans and New Zealanders died of their wounds in British hospitals. Many more would tragically survive the war only to die in the influenza pandemic that swept the globe in the wake of the war.

If you do decide to visit a local churchyard, perhaps you could spare a moment to reflect on the sacrifice of those within, and perhaps ponder the final resting place of those far from their homelands. For as the New Zealanders proudly but poignantly state on their battlefield memorials, in our hour of most need, they came “From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth”.

If you would like to know more about visiting the battlefields of the Western Front, take a look at www.travel-galloway.com/ww1centenary

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