We have been travelling in Myanmar (previously known as Burma) and Thailand for the pass three weeks. Our itinerary included visits to some of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. The first of these was the Taukkyan War Cemetery in Yangon (Rangoon). Before we left England a chance finding in Diane’s deceased father’s papers had given us the name of her Auntie Joan’s fiancée who had gone missing in Burma during the Second World War. His name was Cyril Lambert and further research indicated that he was remembered on face 11 on the Rangoon Memorial in the Taukkyan War Cemetery.
War memorials may seem a strange topic for a garden blog but these are gardens in their own right. I have been impressed by both the beauty and sadness of these memorials and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission need to be congratulated on their work. Much of the historical text below has been taken from the CWGC website.
Taukkyan War Cemetery
Taukkyan War Cemetery is the largest of the three war cemeteries in Burma (now Myanmar). It was begun in 1951 for the reception of graves from four battlefield cemeteries at Akyab, Mandalay, Meiktila and Sahmaw which were difficult to access and could not be maintained. The last was an original ‘Chindit’ cemetery containing many of those who died in the battle for Myitkyina. The graves have been grouped together at Taukkyan to preserve the individuality of these battlefield cemeteries
Burials were also transferred from civil and cantonment cemeteries, and from a number of isolated jungle and roadside sites. Because of prolonged post-war unrest, considerable delay occurred before the Army Graves Service were able to complete their work, and in the meantime many such graves had disappeared. However, when the task was resumed, several hundred more graves were retrieved from scattered positions throughout the country and brought together here.
The cemetery now contains 6,374 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 867 of them unidentified.
In the 1950s, the graves of 52 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War were brought into the cemetery from the following cemeteries where permanent maintenance was not possible: Henzada (1); Meiktila Cantonment (8); Thayetmyo New (5); Thamakan (4); Mandalay Military (12) and Maymyo Cantonment (22).
Taukkyan War Cemetery also contains:
- The Rangoon Memorial, which bears the names of almost 27,000 men of the Commonwealth land forces who died during the campaigns in Burma and who have no known grave. The memorial was designed by Mr. H.J. Brown, ARIBA and unveiled by General Sir Francis Festing, GCB, KBE, DSO on 9 February 1958.
- The Taukkyan Cremation Memorial, commemorating more than 1,000 Second World War casualties whose remains were cremated in accordance with their faith.
- The Taukkyan Memorial, which commemorates 46 servicemen of both wars who died and were buried elsewhere in Burma but whose graves could not be maintained.
Each grave is marked with a headstone giving, where available, name, regiment, and a personalised inscription. Many could not be identified.
In every direction there are rows and rows of the headstones each separated by some flowering plants and all immaculately kept surrounded by lawns.
The Rangoon Memorial
It is in the form of two long open garden courts, flanked by covered walks and joined by an open rotunda. The names of the fallen are carved on the inner faces of broad rectangular piers placed at intervals to form the sides of the covered walks. Through these colonnades can be seen the green lawns of the cemetery and the colourful garden courts.
The Death Railway
The Death Railway (Burma-Siam railway) stretched for 415 km from Thanbyuzayat in Burma to Nong Pladuk in Bangpong District in Ratchaburi province in Thailand. 304 km of the railway was located in Thailand and the remaining 111 km in Burma.
The notorious railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar).
Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre. The Japanese aimed at completing the railway in 14 months and work began in October 1942. The line, 424 kilometres long, was completed by December 1943.
The cutting know as Hellfire Pass is the longest and deepest along the entire length of the railway.It was also notorious as one of the worst places of suffering on the railway. The cutting was planned by Japanese engineers and was to be cut using manual labour.In fact there were two cuttings , a short one of 73 metres length and 25 metres deep and a longer cutting about 450 metres long and 8 metres deep.These were typical tools now in the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. If you get the chance this museum is well worth a visit.
The cutting was known by several names, originally Konyu cutting and then later variously ‘Hammer and Tap’ because of the constant sound of ‘hammer and tap’ crews drilling holes for explosives and now better known as Hellfire Pass, so named after the prisoners of war were kept working long into the night by the light of fires and torches.
The prisoners died because of sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion. There was very little or no medical treatment available and many prisoners suffered horribly before they died. The prisoner’s diet consisted of rice and salted vegetables served twice a day. Sometimes they were forced to work up to sixteen hours a day under atrocious conditions. Many prisoners were tortured for the smallest offenses. The Japanese commander’s motto was “if you work hard you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard you will be punished.” Punishments included savage beatings, being made to kneel on sharp sticks while holding a boulder for one to three hours at a time and being tied to a tree with barbed wire and left there for two to three days without any food or water.
Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery
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.
Thanbyuzayat became a prisoner of war administration headquarters and base camp in September 1942 and in January 1943 a base hospital was organised for the sick. The camp was close to a railway marshalling yard and workshops, and heavy casualties were sustained among the prisoners during Allied bombing raids in March and June 1943. The camp was then evacuated and the prisoners, including the sick, were marched to camps further along the line where camp hospitals were set up. For some time, however, Thanbyuzayat continued to be used as a reception centre for the groups of prisoners arriving at frequent intervals to reinforce the parties working on the line up to the Burma-Siam border.
Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery was created by the Army Graves Service who transferred to it all graves along the northern section of the railway, between Moulmein and Nieke.
There are now 3,149 Commonwealth and 621 Dutch burials of the Second World war in the cemetery.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is only a short distance from the site of the former ‘Kanburi’, the prisoner of war base camp through which most of the prisoners passed on their way to other camps. It 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.
We spent at least one hour in each of these cemeteries. Walking along the rows, reading the inscriptions and thinking about the history behind each grave. You would need to be a very hard person not to come away with a tear in your eyes.