Commonwealth War Graves of the Far East

Since visiting Kranji Cemetery on a whim during a spare afternoon in Singapore many years ago, I have made it a point to visit Commonwealth War Graves during any of my trips. When I was younger, I had it in mind to do them all in one amazing backpacking trip, but as more responsibilities came along, I've settled for ticking them off one-by-one. As I walk through each cemetery, while I don't know any of the names, I am always touched by their ages - most didn't make it out of their 20s - and the poignant words of their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, themselves now likely long gone. These peaceful corners of foreign fields, lovingly tended by local people who, with each generation, know less and less about these old wars. With World War II now 75 years past, I just hope there will be more generations to tend them for another 75 and beyond. 

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Kranji, Singapore

This is was my first visit to one of the many Commonwealth War Graves in the Far East and is a good place to start. If Singapore is 'Asia for Beginners', then this cemetery is along the same lines. Kranji War Memorial and Cemetery is  located north of the centre of Singapore, overlooking the Straits of Johor, which divides the island from the mainland of Malaysia. It's easily reached via the MRT (Kranji Station) followed by a short, pleasant walk. 

At the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, Kranji was a military camp, and the cemetery began as a small burial place for its prisoners. The Kranji Memorial is dedicated to the 24,346 soldiers and airmen who fought and died but have no known grave, of which 9,295 are British. The Memorial is made up of thirteen flat concrete columns which bear the names of these 24,346 men. It is situated behind the Cross of Sacrifice on a small grassy hill. A short flight of white steps spans the front which leads up to a terrace of grass on which the Memorial stands.

The Cemetery itself, which is in front of the Cross of Sacrifice and the Memorial, contains the graves of 4,465 men, of which 2,445 are British, including 589 graves of soldiers only known unto God. Each grave is marked by a tall white headstone with a carved out regiment insignia. They stand in rows between well-tended, lush grass and flowers,  shrubs and trees. 

While every name and burial represents a valiant soldier whose death should not be in vain, there are some soldiers whose bravery stands out. Notable burials include members of Z Special Unit including Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Lyon and Captain Robert Page, who took part in Operation Rimau, a virtual suicide mission to destroy Japanese shipping. 23 soldiers ultimately died in the destruction of three Japanese ships. 

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Kanchanaburi, Thailand
I visited both Kanachanaburi and Chungkai cemeteries in 2006, during a solo-trip to Thailand. It was a while back, but I recall a manageable train ride from Bangkok followed by a bus to Kanchanaburi itself. It's probably one of the most visited cemeteries, given its proximity to 'the bridge' which is obviously a very popular tourist attraction.

Kanchanaburi the town stands on the banks of the Mae Khlong River, at a point where it separates into the Kwai Noi and the Kwai Yai. It was here that the Japanese formed a large POW base camp during the construction of  the Thai-Burma Railway, which also included a large base hospital from 1942 to 1945. The majority of prisoners of war would pass through this camp as they were marched north to work in other camps along the railway.   

Close to where the former POW camp was once situated is the large War Cemetery, the entrance to which can be found on the busy Saeng Chuto Road that runs through the centre of the town. It is the largest of the two cemeteries in the area with around 7,000 graves of which 3,568 are British, 1,362 are Australian and 1,896 Dutch.

All the graves in the  Cemetery are marked with bronze plaques, mounted on small tilted concrete blocks. On each bronze plaque can be found the insignia of the regiment of the deceased and beside each small grave are local flowering shrubs which are neatly set out in rows and surrounded by green lush buffalo grass.

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Chungkai, Thailand

The Chungkai War Cemetery is situated on the banks of the Kwai Noi River, about five kilometres south of the centre of  Kanchanaburi and is the smaller of the two POW war cemeteries in the area. The cemetery can be reached either by going up river in a local long tail boat or by road, as I did by bicycle, crossing the Ratanakan Bridge.

Like the nearby Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, all the men buried in Chungkai perished while working on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway constructed during 1942 and 1943. The cemetery is located on the same spot as the Chungkai POW camp used during the construction of the railway line and 'the bridge' that spans the River Kwai. The long 'aisle' that runs through the centre of the cemetery was said to be the main path that ran through the camp and at one end stand two tall trees which it is claimed stood there during the time of the POWs captivity and beneath which the hospital tent was erected to give some shade to the ill and dying prisoners. There are 1,740 graves in Chungkai of which 1,384 are British and 313 Dutch.

As with Kanchanaburi cemetery, the small neat headstones are bronze, mounted on a slanted concrete block on which can be found the insignia of the regiment to which the deceased was attached.

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Yokohama, Japan
I took a trip to this cemetery a day after running the Tokyo Marathon in 2013. It's fairly easy to get to, although the Japanese train system can be a little daunting at first. An hour on the train from Tokyo and a short walk will get you here. As you can see from my photos below, the grass was scorched while I was there - probably a regular practice and it gave it a different look from the usual lush green grass.
Yokohama War Cemetery was constructed by the Australian War Graves Group after World War II and contains the graves of Commonwealth servicemen who died in Japan as prisoners of war or with the occupying forces after the war. It consists of four main parts; the United Kingdom section, the Australian section, the Canadian and New Zealand section and the Indian Forces 1939-1945 section. The cemetery contains 1,555 Commonwealth burials and commemorations, including 53 unidentified burials and a small number of special memorials to casualties known to be buried in the cemetery, whose graves could not be precisely located. There is also one World War I burial and a Dutch war grave. The post-war plot contains over 100 non-war service and civilian burials. The cemetery also contains the Yokohama Memorial which commemorates 20 members of the Army of Undivided India and the Royal Indian Air Force who died while serving with the occupation forces in Japan, for whom no burial or cremation information exists. The Yokohama Cremation Memorial, a shrine which houses an urn containing the ashes of 335 soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Commonwealth, the USA and the Netherlands who died as prisoners of war in Japan also stands within the cemetery. Their names (save for fifty one who were not identified) are inscribed on the walls of the shrine.
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Taukkyan, Myanmar

Taukkyan War Cemetery and Memorial lies north just outside Yangon. I visited both this and Thanbyuzayat cemetery during a solo-trip to Myanmar in 2015. Myanmar soon became my favourite country to visit in all of Asia - it's like stepping back in time.

The massive open rotunda shape of the Memorial is extremely impressive and is flanked with two rows either side of tall round stone columns - fourteen columns in each row with paving stones and flowering shrubs in between. Upon each column can be found the names of 27,000 men who have no known grave.

Inscribed inside the Memorial Rotunda are the words: '1939-1945. Here are recorded the names of twenty seven thousand soldiers of many races united in service to the British Crown who gave their lives in Burma and Assam, but to whom the fortune of war denied the customary rites accorded to their comrades in death'.

Behind the Memorial columns is the extremely attractive cemetery. Separating the two, by forming a delightful screen, is a beautiful arbor of flowering trees.

The cemetery contains the graves of 6,000 men, but not all of these are the remains of Prisoners of War. Many graves were located in an area around the Rangoon Jail where the POWs were held during their captivity. But many graves are of those who died during the battle to regain Rangoon from the Japanese in 1945. The Taukkyan War Cemetery was created to bury the bodies of casualties and the remains of the POWs were later transferred here. The  headstones in the Taukkyan Cemetery are small tablet head stones, as seen in many of the other war cemeteries, inset with a bronze plaque, and is beautifully presented with green, lush grass and peppered with the bright colours of small flowering shrubs.

There are seven VC (Victoria Cross) holders buried in this cemetery, all of whom died in action in Burma in 1944 or 1945. 

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Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar

The Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery is situated in the village of Thanbyuzayat and is approximately 65 kilometres south of Moulmein, in the foothills that separate Burma from Thailand. I arranged a driver through my hotel in Moulmein and the trip was pretty straighforward.

The first Prisoners of War arrived at Thanbyuzayat via Moulmein in September 1942 and established a POW base camp. This was also the base for a large hospital camp. It was here at Thanbyuzayat that the northern section of the pre-war  rail line was connected to the newly laid rail line the prisoners constructed through Thailand. The southern end of the line  was connected to the existing line at Nong Pladuk, west of Bangkok.

Prisoners who died in the camps in the north of Thailand - from Nieke going north to Moulmein, were initially buried in small cemeteries located close to the camps in which they had died, but after the war the Army Graves Service located most of the deceased and they were moved to the War Cemetery at Thanbyuzayat.

The total number of graves in Thanbyuzayat is 3,771, of which 1,588 are British including 27 unknown graves. 1,335 are Australian and 621 are Dutch, with numerous  others.

The cemetery is set out in a semi-circle with the main aisle running through the  centre with the Cross of Sacrifice standing at the  end. On either side of this cross are clusters of large white flowering trees with small flowering shrubs are throughout. 

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Sai Wan, Hong Kong

Although I've lived in Hong Kong since 2014, I've actually only visited Sai Wan War Cemetery one one occasion. It is situated on the east of Hong Kong island itself, near the area of Chai Wan and fairly easy to get to via MTR and a short walk.

At the entrance to the cemetery there is a memorial to all those who died in Hong Kong and have no known grave.  From this point there is a wonderful clear view overlooking the island as the long, narrow cemetery gradually slopes downhill  towards the sea.

On the War Memorial are the names of 2,000 servicemen who either died in the Battle for Hong Kong or subsequently at the hands of the Japanese. These 2,000 men have no known grave. The cemetery has 1,561 graves, of which 1,010 are British and of these 285 have no known grave. Given their large role in the 1941 Battle for Hong Kong, there are also 283 Canadian  graves, some not being named. These are the graves of those who died fighting against the Japanese in December 1941 or later as POWs through barbaric acts carried out by the Japanese. Servicemen who died as prisoners on the island of Formosa (modern-day Taiwan) were removed and re-buried in Sai Wan War Cemetery in 1946.

The graves are marked with white upright head stones depicting the regiment's insignia and the cemetery is enclosed within a boundary of flowering shrubs and bushes with a flight of stone steps leading down a centre aisle towards the Cross of Sacrifice.

Brigadier John K Lawson, the highest ranking soldier killed in the Battle for Hong Kong is buried at Sai Wan Cemetery. VC holder Sergeat-Major John Robert Osborn has no known grave but his name features on the memorial.

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Stanley, Hong Kong

Stanley War Cemetery is situated close to the small town of Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island. It is situated beside  the road and the ground rises steeply upward from the road toward the Cross of Sacrifice.

A relatively small cemetery, there are nearly 600 graves of which 170 have no known grave. During the Second World War, the Japanese won the Battle for Hong Kong which fell on 25th December 1941 and the Stanley Jail and village were taken over and used as a POW and civilian internment camp. An old unused cemetery was then reopened to bury the dead who died as prisoners of war. The cemetery was later extended to re-bury those servicemen who were initially buried elsewhere or in isolated graves on the island following the battle in December 1941. Also buried in the cemetery are those casualties of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force. The graves are marked with white upright headstones bearing carved inscriptions.

George Cross recipients Captain Mateen Ahmed Ansari, Colonel Lance Newnham MC, Major John Alexander Fraser MC and Bar, Captain Douglas Ford and Flight Lieutenant Hector Gray, are all buried at Stanley War Cemetery.

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Future Trips

After 20 odd years of travels, I've ticked off pretty much all of the easier cemeteries, with only the trickier ones left to visit.

Papua New Guinea has three cemeteries in Port Moresby, Lae and Rabual. Given the instability of the whole country, this will be quite a difficult trip, although I'm determined to do it some day.

Indonesia has two cemeteries - one in Jakarta and one on the island of Ambon. As outlined in my previous backpacking trip there, I still have to return one day and this would be an amazing trip.

Malaysia has two cemeteries - in Taiping, close to Penang and on the island of Labuan. I've had a few trips to Malaysia over the years, so time to return soon.

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Thanbyuzayat