Britain’s brave, slain soldiers lie in war graves all around the world – many in places so remote and inaccessible that friends and families have never even seen them, let alone tended them or stood by them for a moment, steeped in love and regret.
Which is why, as Britain prepares to honour its war dead this Remembrance Sunday, the Daily Mail has travelled from the Arctic Circle to the African jungle and a beleaguered Middle-Eastern battle zone to honour the far-flung resting-places of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
What we discovered is enough to warm the coldest heart. Because despite daily struggles for survival – against shells, machine gun fire and grinding poverty and hunger — the local people in these sometimes desolate places have never stopped tending the graves of our heroes.
In the heart of the African bush, Kokou Esso, an impoverished villager, carefully sweeps the grave of a British upper-class Army officer. It is well-tended, pristine and, most of all, remembered
In war-torn Gaza, scene of ongoing clashes between Israeli and Palestinian militants and several shell attacks that destroyed headstones, four generations of Arab gardeners calmly tend British graves from the First World War.
In Murmansk, 125 miles inside the Arctic Circle, we found the graves of British soldiers from the same conflict.
Alongside them were Second World War Allied servicemen who perished in the Arctic convoys — providing a lifeline to our then-allies, the Soviets.
A group of local people still lovingly maintain the graves, even in Putin’s Russia.
Finally, in a remote village in Togo, West Africa – one of the poorest countries in the world – a single gravestone marks the burial of the first British officer to die in the Great War. It is well-tended, pristine and, most of all, remembered.
The final resting place for British soldiers killed in Gaza in both world wars is in the middle of what is once again a war zone, surrounded by ruin, violence and armed checkpoints.
Missiles have rained down around the graves. An armoured bulldozer has scoured the undergrowth for militants, and a Kalashnikov-wielding mob once invaded the cemetery.
Above is the constant buzz of an Israeli surveillance drone and all around is the risk of more violence here between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic group which holds power in the Gaza Strip.
Not surprisingly, it is almost impossible for British relatives and friends to visit the graves of family members here because, even with a lull in the fighting, the border controls on both sides are strict.
In the shadow of a mosque and within earshot of the Islamic call to prayer, Ibrahim, a qualified accountant, preserves these men’s memory, often watering by hand and through the night because of the endless power cuts
But Ibrahim Jaradah, 27, who works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, has long been committed to somehow making this place an oasis of beauty and calm.
So, shaded by Jacaranda trees and each bordered with delicate alpine flowers, we found 3,217 immaculate Commonwealth graves from the First World War. Of these, 781 bear the simple inscription: ‘A Soldier of the Great War…Known unto God’.
Alongside are 210 graves from the Second World War. Second Lieutenant Stanley Boughey, from the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was just 21 when the Ottoman Army attacked at El Burf, Palestine, on December 1, 1917.
The enemy had crawled to within 30 yards of the British firing line. Boughey rushed forward alone with bombs, right up to the enemy, ‘doing great execution and causing the surrender of a party of 30,’ as a report in the London Gazette recorded.
As Boughey turned to go back for more bombs he was wounded just at the moment the enemy was surrendering. He died of his injuries three days later on December 4.
Boughey’s courage earned him the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be presented to British and Commonwealth forces: the Victoria Cross.
His grave carries the epitaph: ‘The blood of heroes is the seed of freedom.’ He lies a few steps from the graves of Jewish soldiers, their headstones carved with the Star of David, who also died fighting for British regiments.
The enemy had crawled to within 30 yards of the British firing line. Boughey (above) rushed forward alone with bombs, right up to the enemy, ‘doing great execution and causing the surrender of a party of 30,’ as a report in the London Gazette recorded
In the shadow of a mosque and within earshot of the Islamic call to prayer, Ibrahim, a qualified accountant, preserves these men’s memory, often watering by hand and through the night because of the endless power cuts.
‘The cemetery is more important to us than rest or sleep,’ he says. ‘It touches our hearts. This is our garden rather than our work.’
A local bank wanted Ibrahim to work for them, but his commitment lay elsewhere.
For he was born in the cemetery lodge as were his father, Essam, his father Ibrahim Sr and his greatgrandfather Rabie.
All have cared for these British graves for more than 60 years.
Because it is so difficult bringing new equipment over the border into embattled Gaza, the workers are skilled mechanics (keeping old gardening machinery operating by improvising spare parts) and propagate their own plants in two small greenhouses.
Stanley Boughey’s grave is pictured above. Ibrahim Jaradah, 27, who works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, has long been committed to somehow making this place an oasis of beauty and calm
Ibrahim Sr, who died two years ago aged 81, was made an MBE in 1994. He chose not to travel to Buckingham Palace.
And now — like most other Gazans — the rest of the family are unable to leave the strip. Doing so is largely forbidden by Israel.
Essam says of his son: ‘We’re very proud of him. He’s continuing the family march.’
Sadly, despite the family’s efforts, the dead have not always been allowed to rest in peace.
In 2006, Israel paid £90,000 compensation to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for damage caused in an air strike. Three years later, shells blasted 350 headstones, leaving the neatly-cut grass scarred with burn marks.
The Jaradahs, meanwhile, are a Palestinian family caring for the graves of men who died fighting for Britain.
Our government, in 1917, made the Balfour Declaration, eventually bringing about the state of Israel and thus causing the Jaradahs’ own flight from Palestine to Gaza in 1948.
But they bear no hatred. They are proud of their work and the soldiers whose graves they tend.
‘Everyone is equal here,’ says Ibrahim. ‘We take care of them all, regardless of their religion or politics.’
Three wreaths of artificial flowers mark a bleak spot 125 miles inside the Arctic Circle.
It is a strange and haunting place to find the graves of British soldiers, not least because most of them died in 1919, a year after the First World War officially ended.
Surrounded by a low stone wall and in the shadow of a towering fish-processing plant, the tiny cemetery is all that’s left of a forgotten conflict. For these lost men, the centenary of the ending of the Great War came a year too early.
The cemetery — which has survived the Cold War and the ups downs of relations between London and Moscow — is still cared for by locals.
Such dedication is particularly poignant because the Russians had no reason to respect these British warriors — they had come to fight the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Revolution.
Their regiments included the East Surrey, the Royal Sussex, the Yorkshire and the Highland Light.
One local who never forgets is Ivan Keravka, the tough skipper of an ice-breaker moored in Murmansk bay. As he walks between the neat headstones he thinks about his own children. ‘Some of these men were so young,’ he says
They were sent by Winston Churchill, then War Minister, and held Murmansk and Archangel for a while, fighting for the White Russians (on the Tsarist side of the civil war), before Britain withdrew, realising it was a hopeless cause.
Over the decades Murmansk has respected and cared for the 83 graves of Moscow’s former enemies, who were then under orders to crush Russia’s new Communist uprising.
One local who never forgets is Ivan Keravka, the tough skipper of an ice-breaker moored in Murmansk bay. As he walks between the neat headstones he thinks about his own children.
‘Some of these men were so young,’ he says. ‘They were thousands of miles from home. Of course the graves are respected.
‘They’ve never been damaged. Because when you think of your own kids, you can only offer respect, even if at one time they were our foes.’
Sergeant James Francis McDonald from Burnley, the son of a tailor, was only 16 when he enlisted in 1914. The following year, fighting in the Dardanelles, he was shot in the shoulder and chest
In a park in central Murmansk, the Russians have a memorial to their own countrymen who died in what’s described as ‘The War of Intervention’ by the Allies.
It’s just a mile from the British cemetery near the fish factory, where a commemorative plaque to Private Wickens of the East Surrey — who died in 1919, aged 18 — reads: ‘In loving memory of one of the best who sacrificed his life for a comrade.’
In another Murmansk cemetery, under the CWGC auspices, is the grave of J. B. Anderson, aged 16, a steward’s boy, on the Steam Ship Induna, who died April 3, 1942.
His grave, surrounded by those of his comrades, bears the legend: ‘His leaf perished in the green, blasted by Arctic gales.’
Sergeant James Francis McDonald from Burnley, the son of a tailor, was only 16 when he enlisted in 1914. The following year, fighting in the Dardanelles, he was shot in the shoulder and chest.
Bravely, he went on to serve in France as a member of the machine gun corps and survived the rest of the war. After he was demobilised in 1918, this young man who had known so much war volunteered for the Russia campaign.
He was killed fighting the Bolsheviks on September 9, 1919 — one of the last casualties of the campaign. He was just 21.
In the heart of the African bush, Kokou Esso, an impoverished villager, carefully sweeps the grave of a British upper-class Army officer. The fact that Lieutenant George Masterman Thompson was the first officer killed in the Great War, is of no consequence to Kokou.
‘Many Africans died in the wars,’ he says. ‘But this man lost his life as well, many miles from home. That’s why we care for his grave.’
The fact that Lieutenant George Masterman Thompson was the first officer killed in the Great War, is of no consequence to Kokou. ‘Many Africans died in the wars,’ he says. ‘But this man lost his life as well, many miles from home. That’s why we care for his grave’
There are many reasons for Kokou not to carry out this voluntary duty — not least the challenge of daily survival in a country where having next to nothing is normal.
But he is committed, and the Wahala Cemetery — a tortuous and dangerous 70-mile drive from capital, Lome, past ramshackle villages and broken-down trucks — is astonishingly well manicured and tidy in the midst of squalor.
The graves are immaculate. And among them is that of Lieutenant Thompson, aged 24, formerly of Wellington College (motto: ‘Fortune Favours the Bold’) and Sandhurst.
Thompson is unlikely to have anticipated his fate here, thousands of miles from the mud and trenches of the Western Front. But war came unexpectedly early to Africa.
The Germans, colonial rulers of Togoland — as it was then known — had built a state-of-the-art wireless station at Kamina, the finest in Africa.
In the first week of the First World War, it relayed 200 messages from Atlantic shipping and other intelligence sources straight back to Berlin.
It had to be destroyed to protect vital British supply lines and Lieutenant Thompson, newly commissioned in the Royal Scots, was the man. He was serving in the neighbouring British colony of the Gold Coast, now Ghana.
On August 22, 1914, Thompson led a small force of French Senegalese troops into action against German forces at Chra, Togoland. It was a fierce and significant engagement and he was killed in action.
A few days later, the outnumbered Germans burnt the Kamina wireless station to the ground rather than let it fall into enemy hands.
Thompson was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palms by the French who commended his gallantry.
His death is still marked every year at his old school in the Berkshire countryside.
And thousands of miles away in Togo, Kokou Esso will brush the African dust from this hero’s grave, perhaps unaware of the day’s significance, yet nonetheless quietly honouring his memory.