War Cemeteries In North-East
Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow; I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain; I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush, I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight, I am the star shine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom, I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing, I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there. I did not die.
A sense of deep worship and respect comes to the heart of anyone who visits a War Cemetery. The time spent at a cemetery is a very calming experience; it is a place that invokes deep introspection.
The beauty and serenity of any War Cemetery or Martyr’s Memorial brings out different emotions from its visitors. One initially feels the awe at the grandeur of the place, but as one walks around and looks at the many white marble crosses and the brass plaques that surround the area, this feeling turns into a sense of wonder, sadness, maybe anger, and deep sorrow. But at the same time, it also evokes a sense of humbleness, inspiration, a feeling of great respect and appreciation for all those brave men who lay in the graves, the real heroes, who gave their lives in the service of their country in their gallant fight for our freedom and independence.
There are four War Cemeteries in the North-East, and I have visited them all. There are also many memorial sites of the great battles that were fought here during the Second World War. All my visits to these places have been very moving and cathartic.
In the beautifully manicured garden outside the Imphal War Cemetery, there were many teeny-boppers, mooching around, most of them with Uncle Chipps packets and Coke tins in their hands. I went up to the gate of the Cemetery and found it locked. I looked around; expecting to see someone. One of the young lads told me to jump the gate and showed me how to do it. Another pointed to an old man relaxing in the shade of a tree. On seeing me, he sprung up and unlocked the gate beckoning me inside. He spoke English and his eyes twinkled when I told him that I would be spending the day there.
Just on entering the Cemetery there are two small rooms on either side of the gate. One had the notice “It is regretted that it is not possible to keep the Cemetery Register in this box at all times. Enquiries may be addressed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2 Marlow Road, Maidenhead Berkshire, England. The keeper told me the register had been repeatedly filched and lately some bronze plaques too had been stolen.
The Cemetery has 1600 shining bronze plaques uniformly distanced. On the plaques are inscribed the names of the officers and soldiers and some of the epitaphs inscribed are very touching and remarkable. There were originally some 950 burials in the Imphal War Cemetery, but after hostilities had ceased, the Army Graves Service brought in graves from two smaller cemeteries in Imphal and from other isolated positions in the surrounding region.
Wandering through the neat rows of markers one can see the names of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews who gave up their lives, coming from afar as the United Kingdom, Canada, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Most were in their twenties but there were some even younger, one nineteen year old had been laid to rest under an inscription: ‘Think not he had too short a day, he knew the dawn but did not know decay’.
Many of the graves are individually inscribed with personal messages which I presume were penned by members of their families. Some graves have basic information only and there are many unmarked graves as the identities are still unknown. These poignant dedications from family members are heartrending, as one wife wrote: “Until we meet again.” List of soldiers is as follows:
■ Private LR Tew of the Northhamptonshire Regiment was just 19 when he was killed on 14th June 1944. Under the Regimental crest were inscribed “He Fought his fight, he did his best, God grant him now, Eternal rest.”
■ Private S Page of the Suffolk Regiment laid down his life on the 19th May 1944 aged 20. His inscription reads “Taken but not forgotten”.
■ Gunner J Normanton of the Royal Artillery fired his last salvo on the 24th March 1944. He was just 26. His parents, in far away England had the following epitaph inscribed on his grave: “Sleep on, dear son, you grave we shall never see, but we will remember thee.”
■ And yes, there is a grave marker for Raja Ratnam, Labourer, Indian Signal Corps who was killed on the 13th December 1944.
■ Lieutenant PB Scot aged 23, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers was attached to the 7th Gurkha Rifles when he met his maker on the 24th November 1943. His father has inscribed these words for him “So, Long Son”.
■ The mother of Private VR Wright of The Border Regiment, died on the 10th June 1944 had the following words inscribed “Tread Softly, My Darling Sleeps Here”.
■ The most poignant epitaph I found was of Gunner R.Stevens of the Royal Artillery who was killed on 24th January 1945 ages 25. The plaque read “Only Sleeping”.
■ The irony of war is depicted in the markers of the unknown and unidentified soldiers. The marker reads: “A Soldier of the 1939-45 War. Known Unto God”.
The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is important, and the “lest we forget” is even more important in today’s world.
These valiant warriors, who rest on this gentle field, came from an era when charity and altruism were as common as mobile phones and Pepsi are today. They were men of integrity who had a strong can-do character. They had gone into battle in foreign lands, fighting a war which they did not properly understand. The serene ambience in and around the cemetery adds to the solemnity and sanctity of the place. Delegations from England and Japan regularly visit this Cemetery.
A cemetery is a reminder that there’s a full stop on all of our sentences—but looking through the inscriptions or just absorbing the environment, you can also feel that it’s not really the end that matters as much as the infinite variety of clauses and phrases that have been inscribed.
At the base of a hillock about 15 kilometers from Imphal, on the Tiddim Road is the Japanese War Memorial. It was put up by the Japanese in 1994 in memory of its soldiers who died in fierce battle with the Allied Forces during World War II. Known as the Indian Peace Memorial, it is a spot of pilgrimage for Japanese war veterans who visit the place every year. It is a simple memorial with a tree lined passage which ends in a small platform where three huge boulders are strewn about. The passage, walkway and the stones make great geometry, and are softened by the trees and the park environment. There is a small and simple inscription on a brass plaque which reads “ The India Peace Memorial : This monument shall stand as a prayer for peace and a symbol of friendship between the people of Japan and India. In Memory of all those who lost their lives in India during the last World War.”
On the Imphal-Ukhrul road, one takes a detour at Finch Corner to reach Shangshak where the Indian Army has put up the Shangshak War Memorial. It has been raised by the Maratha Light Infantry to commemorate the dead of the 4/5 Maratha, the 152 Para Bn and the brave people of Shashank. The battle of Shashank raged for six days from the 20th March to 26th March 1944.
In the early months of 1944, the 15th Division of the Japanese Imperial Army had gained only partial success on the Imphal axis, and had thus opened up another from the Ukhrul axis to facilitate their march to Imphal and hence to the plains of Assam. There had been skirmishes in the adjoining hills since January, but on the night of the 19th March, the Japanese launched a multi directional assault on Shashank, the 4/5 Maratha were cut off from all supplies and rations but held on valiantly till the 26th. This delay imposed by the battalion enabled General Slim to air land the 5th and 7th India Divisions at Tulihal in Imphal thereby saving the fall of Imphal and stopping the Japanese advance.
Inscribed on the four sided cenotaph are the words “ To the eternal memory of the fallen martyrs of the 4 Maratha LI and the 50 Para Brigade”
On the other sides of the memorial is inscribed “Martyrs of the Royal British Army” and “To the brave people of Shangshak”. The names of the soldiers and civilians are all etched here. The Memorial was constructed by the Assam Rifles who have a sizeable presence in Manipur and are deployed to contain the insurgency in the state. Just below the memorial, lives one of the brave people of the Shangshak War. Y.A.Shishak lives in his small home, and is the caretaker of the Memorial.
The cemeteries are all maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which was established by Royal Charter in 1917. There are six participating member countries and India is one of them. The principal function of the Commission is to mark, record and maintain the graves of Commonwealth of Nations military service members who died in the two World Wars. The Commission, as part of its mandate, commemorates all Commonwealth war dead individually and equally. To this effect, the war dead are commemorated by name on either a headstone, at an identified site of a burial, or on a memorial. War dead are commemorated in a uniform and equal fashion, irrespective of military or civil rank, race or creed. There is absolute equality in death.
Since its inception, the Commission has constructed 2,500 war cemeteries, erecting headstones and plaques over graves and, in instances where the remains are missing, inscribing the names of the dead on permanent memorials. Over one million casualties are now commemorated at military and civil sites in 150 countries.
He came out on seeing me, and as I entered his compound the old soldier gave me a Jai Hind salute. He took me inside; his small house was filled with war memorabilia. He showed me the first INA flag that was unfurled at Moirang, samurai swords, helmets and many photographs lined the walls. His visitor’s book had scores of entries. There were testimonials from Japanese, British, Indian and even German visitors. One heart warming was from KSV David Lemmi, of Hundung Village in Ukhrul. He had written: “ I am the son of KSV Harteo of Hundung Village. My father was a school headmaster I was still in my mothers womb when my father was killed by a Japanese Intelligence Officer in June 1944. My mother and three sisters suffered a lot of hardships and difficulties. However we have no enmity with anyone. I missed my father a lot, whom I loved. God bless us all, Japanese people and all” (2/10/2004).
The picturesque Kohima War Cemetery is situated on the battleground of Garrison Hill in Kohima. It is a terraced garden lawn and contains 1,420 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. There are two tall crosses standing at the lowest and highest points of the cemetery overlooking Kohima. There is also an Indian Cremation Memorial, which commemorates 900 Indian Gorkhas who gave their lives in defence of the country.
The epitaph carved on the memorial of the 2nd British Division in the cemetery has become world-famous as the Kohima Epitaph. It reads: “When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say, For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”.
The battle of Kohima was fought between the 31st Japanese Division under General Sato and the British 2nd Division under the command of General Slim’s 14th Army. Nearly 13,000 Japanese soldiers battled against a 9,000-strong opposition; roughly 3,000 Japanese and 4,000 British casualties were counted at the cessation of the battle. Many of these casualties were Angami Nagas but there are no exact records of their deaths. The only Naga grave at the cemetery is that of 21-year-old Saliezhu Angami; the inscription on his grave reads, “The big-minded warring youngest son of mine shall arise and shine like a star.”
The plaque for Ghulam Muhammad of the 2nd Punjab Regiment, says that he was just 16 years old when he died. The parents of another 19-year-old martyr had inscribed on the plaque: “To the world, our Tom was just a soldier. To us he was the whole world.”
This serene, well-kept cemetery has manicured lawns and geometrically arrayed graves bordered with flowering plants. Bushes and trees bordering the perimeter are so carefully selected that some portion blooms every month. It is difficult to imagine that this peaceful retreat, these very terraces, were once the scene of a fierce and bloody hand-to-hand battle, where 65 years ago men fought each other, viciously, for a few metres of ground. The cemetery marks the limit of the Japanese advance into India.
I sat down on the lawn to get a level view of the Cemetery. It seemed that the graves continue indefinitely, the tombstones go on forever. On my way out, I paused and stood at attention and recited the Ode again. I then walked backwards out of the gate, not wishing to turn my back on these brave men who lay buried there.
Digboi town is located in the North-eastern corner of Assam, on the road to Ledo, near the border of Burma. Just a kilometer from the Indian Oil Centre, on the road to the Pengaree Tea Estate, are laid the remnants of the most dramatic event that took place in the history of Digboi, during the Second World War.
During the war, the state of Assam, situated in the north-eastern zone of India, served as an operational area of the Burmese campaign. The town of Digboi, situated near the Burmese border, was on the lines of communication and a military hospital was established in the area, for the purpose of treating the war casualties. Digboi War Cemetery was initially started for the burials from the hospital. By the end of the war, a total of 70 burials had been recorded. Later, Army graves were also transported from the graveyards in Panitola, Jorhat, Ledo, Margherita and Tinsukia to Digboi.
During my journey on the Stilwell Road from Ledo to Pangsau Pass, I heard of another mass graves site on the Jairampuri-Nampong road. The hidden Cemetery, covered with thick jungle lay on the banks of the Namchik River, just metres off the road. It was recently discovered by a road crew and had about a 1,000 graves of allied soldiers. The site was about 10 kms from Jairampur town near the village of Kovin.
The large burial ground has the remains of Chinese, Kachin, Indian, British and American soldiers who died during the building of the Ledo Road. During the construction of the road and while fighting the Japanese forces, a numbers of allied soldiers were reported to have died due to malaria, dysentery, landslides besides bombardment and enemy fire.
The area is just a few kilometers away from the Myanmar Border near Hell’s Pass. The Army has cleared the site and found about 1,000 graves within an area of about three acre. The graves are arranged in five Lines and several rows. A large grave, possibly a mass burial, is in the centre. The graves have been severely damaged by wild elephants as the cemetery lies on an elephant corridor.
A small board, that has been put up by the Indian Army is the only sign at the Cemetery. It says: “These graves bear silent testimony to those soldiers and unlisted workers and labourers who ventured into virgin jungles amid blustering heat and laid down their lives in the line of duty during the Second World War, whilst part of the Allied forces against the Imperial Japanese Army. Their Names Liveth For Ever More.”
In spite of its remoteness and neglect, the cemetery is a tranquil, peaceful place. I could not overcome a feeling of numbness over the loss of so many young men, and I was reminded of the Anzac Day Ode.
“They shall grow not old, As we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, And in the morning,
We will remember them. We will remember them”
Looking at the thousands of burials over this vast expanse of land, one can imagine the horror of the war that took place many years ago. Of course it was war, and in a war, people inevitably die, but these cemeteries are a constant reminder to us all to make sure something as cataclysmic as another World War never happens again.
Sadly, our generation has failed to learn that war is a fruitless exercise but then why should we be different from the hundreds of generations who have gone before us?
On my way out of the Imphal War Cemetery, the caretaker beckoned me to the small room near the exit. He asked me to sign the visitor’s book. I leafed through the pages and read the many tributes to these brave men. I found it very difficult to think what to add. So I wrote two very simple words, “Thank You”.
By Anil Dhir from Imphal & Kohima