We’d come west to Kanchanaburi to learn about the Burma Death Railway and to pay our respects to those prisoners of war who had died building it by visiting the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. I’m no stranger to Commonwealth Cemeteries and marvel at the dedication of those who maintain them…
…thanks in no small part to Sir Fabian Ware, who founded the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Too old for active service at the age of 45, he went to France with the British Red Cross in 1914. It wasn’t long before he noticed that there was no system of recording the graves of those who had died in battle. He convinced the War Office that if the dead were properly looked after, it would boost the morale of the living. [I’m still trying to work that one out, but I suppose in an odd way, it makes sense. So much of what we see today still testifies to the need for closure; that need to know where the bodies have been buried.] His motivation? Common remembrance of the dead [of the Great War] is the one thing, sometimes the only thing, that never fails to bring our people together.
It is quite military in its layout, with straight lines, evenly set markets, and well-tended graves. The British are buried to the right, the Australians and others to the left. Locals crouch, on their hunkers, weeding underneath the hot sun. A peculiar penance I thought. I’d have worked early and later rather than in the heat of the afternoon.
The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma-Siam railway (except for the Americans, whose remains were repatriated) were transferred from camp burial grounds and isolated sites along the railway into three cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar. KANCHANABURI WAR CEMETERY […] was created by the Army Graves Service who transferred to it all graves along the southern section of railway, from Bangkok to Nieke. Some 300 men who died (most from a Cholera epidemic in May/June 1943) at Nieke camp were cremated and their ashes now lie in two graves in the cemetery. The names of these men are inscribed on panels in the shelter pavilion. There are now 5,085 Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. There are also 1,896 Dutch war graves and 1 non-war grave. Within the entrance building to the cemetery will be found the KANCHANABURI MEMORIAL, recording the names of 11 men of the army of undivided India buried in Muslim cemeteries in Thailand, where their graves could not be maintained. The cemetery was designed by Colin St Clair Oakes.
As is usual when I visit such cemeteries, I wonder at the loss of young life, the denial of potential, the sadness of it all. What they must have felt in their last days. How their parents and families and friends much have suffered, never knowing if they’d see them again. When we visited Hellfire Pass, we heard accounts from POWs who survived to tell the tale and what struck me was how they tried to find some humour to share. Some funny incident that perhaps helps them to remember.
And those sons and daughters who grew up without their fathers. What must it be like for them to come to visit, to pay their respects at a marker of a life given for the betterment of other lives?
I was moved. I was beyond moved. I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like to have lived through a war. I wonder if I’ll ever know. I hope not. I checked the registers and saw that some mothers had lost two sons, not just one. Brothers who fought together, imprisoned together, died together. Beyond sad.
What can we do but continue to visit such places, to take the time to pay our respects, to say thank you for the sacrifices they have made.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is open 08:00-17:00 Monday to Friday and 08:00-12:00 Saturday. Entrance free. Located on Saeng Chuto Road, the town’s main street.