“…That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England…”
(Poem by Rupert Brooke)
A heavy tropical rainfall had snarled-up the traffic on the road so my driver took an unfamiliar detour. The narrow road twisted and turned alongside the river and was hemmed in by jungle trees and elephant grass. Here and there a space had been made for a small dwelling.
Visiting Pitakande Military Cemetery (Kandy War Cemetery) in Sri Lanka
Round yet another corner there was a clearing which looked familiar. It was orderly, trimmed and bordered by railings. Within was an unmistakable Cross of Sacrifice as designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield on its traditional octagonal base.
Surrounding there were rows of headstones from Portand marking the graves of 203 servicemen and one woman. We were passing Pitakande Military Cemetery, one of the 2500 Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries. We determined to visit the site later.
November had arrived and we arranged to visit on the 11th day at the 11th hour. It was raining heavily again; we were the only visitors and we were conducted around by the groundsman. The servicemen buried there include Australians, Canadians, East Africans, Ceylonese, Indians and of course, the British.
There is the grave of an Italian prisoner of war; I wondered how he managed to be in Sri Lanka at that time. There are also a few Chinese who happened to be servicing Royal Navy ships.
The grounds are immaculate and follow the layout prescribed with Gertrude Jekyll’s influence shown in the planting. Even she would not have realised how large and colourful the poinsettias would be. The inscriptions on the headstones are traditional as advised by Rudyard Kipling. A separate section for Muslims had inscriptions in Arabic.
Sombre yet beautiful
It had not been easy to find poppies but we managed to obtain a small wreath. We laid them at the base of the cross and Sword of Honour and stood, entirely alone, in the steady rain.
We gazed from the cemetery, across the river to the jungle clad mountains beyond.
It was a beautiful, peaceful but melancholic moment.
I had not been aware that Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, had seen any action in World War II. After the fall of Singapore, Ceylon became the headquarters of the British fleet in the Far East. Colombo and Trincomalee had become important harbours and Lord Louis Mountbatten was Commander in Chief with an HQ in the Botanical Gardens of Kandy.
The sinking of HMS Hermes in 1942
On Easter Sunday, 5th April 1942, the Japanese launched a pre-emptive air strike on Colombo Harbour and a week later on Trincomalee. It was a successful raid for them as they sank an aircraft carrier and several other ships. The allied air defences were disorganised and ineffectual.
However a Canadian, Squadron Leader Leonard J Birchall was hero of the hour as he spotted the Japanese aircraft carriers while on a reconnaissance flight in a Catalina. He managed to get a message back before being shot down; he survived the war. The Royal Navy was able to disperse its ships but without air cover, many, including the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes were sunk.
The Japanese had prevented any counter-attack on Singapore and secured their shipping lanes from Singapore to Rangoon.
This happened over 70 years ago and few relatives of the fallen make their way to the graves. The groundsman keeps a record of all the visitors and our names are inscribed in his ledger.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Post Series: Dispatches from Sri Lanka, by Mike Sedgwick:
- Dispatches From Sri Lanka
- Kandy Lake vs Chandler’s Ford Lakes
- Self-Employment In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Wedding
- Sri Lankan Food
- There’s Some Corner Of A Foreign Field
- The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
- This Is the Record Of John
- Tuk-tuk: My Transport Of Delight
- Life On The Road
- Commonwealth Games In Kandy
- A Temple For A Tooth?
- Dawn Train Down The Mountain To Colombo
- Traditional And Modern Medicine in Sri Lanka
- Ancient Vedda Tribe Becoming Extinct