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The Furthest Reaches of CWGC

Right now, the coronavirus pandemic has put an end to travel and leaving the house for anything but the essentials. But Chris Anderson, one of CWGC’s Media Officers, is on hand to take you on a digital adventure across the world to find our most northern and southern sites.

I was posed the question by a colleague: where are the world’s most northern and southern Commonwealth war graves?

Challenge accepted!

Before we go find them though, it’s worth taking half a step back. Why does the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have such a vast spread of work? (More than 150 countries and territories, since you asked…)

As the name suggests, the World Wars were truly global events. But there are many places where no fighting took place that still contain war graves.

Death wasn’t confined to the battlefields. People met their end in accidents, in the air, at sea and in outposts far from the frontlines. That’s why you’ll find war graves in places as varied as Jerusalem, Jamaica, Jakarta and Jarrow, to pick a letter at random.

And because of that, we find our colleagues travelling to some pretty remote spots – though of course not right now – to make sure each of those 1.7 million names we’re tasked with commemorating, are preserved forever.

So, without further ado, let’s find out which sites sit at the furthest reaches of our planet.

Until recently the northernmost Commonwealth war graves were found in Norway. Well inside the Arctic Circle you’ll find that recognisable headstone design. They’re mostly made of tough stuff here (granite, as the geologists call it) to better survive the conditions.

You’ll still see pockets of colour in the summer if you visit. During the long winters branches are laid over the hardy plants to give them the best chance of returning to bloom each spring.

As we don’t own any cemeteries in Norway, the day to day work is done by scores of local contacts, on our behalf. In sparsely populated parts of world it’s all about who you know.

And right near the top of Arctic Norway is the outpost of Tromsø, where you’ll find a plot of 37 war graves and the most northerly Cross of Sacrifice in the world.

But in 2017 there was somewhere just a little further north into the land of the midnight sun, that came into CWGC’s care to become the most northerly war graves.

Our work is far from finished and new research and discoveries keep our teams around the world busy. One such discovery led to a group of CWGC colleagues taking the long (long) journey to the edge of the Rybachy Peninsula in Russia.

This is by no means somewhere you would stumble over by accident. The site of the cemetery they were heading for lies within land controlled by the Russian Northern Fleet and requires express permission and escorts to visit.

The brilliant first-hand account of that journey is a story that involves Russian military trucks and a rather hirsute bishop. The result of their trip, and lots of support from many different partners, was two CWGC headstones being installed and dedicated at Vaida Bay for Sub-Lieutenant Edmund Seymour Burke and Leading Airman James Beardsley.

Their bodies washed ashore and were buried here as unknowns after they crashed during a raid on 30 July 1941. Today, thanks to international efforts, their war graves – now the most northerly in the world – can be properly marked and cared for.

From one extreme, we go to another. The southernmost Commonwealth war grave in the world is nearly 10,000 miles away from Vaida Bay. We’re off to the far end of Chile, and the surprisingly bustling town of Punta Arenas.

This is where Stoker 2nd Class Augustus Phipps is buried. Augustus’ story is a reminder that ‘war dead’ doesn’t just apply to those slain in battle. He served in the Royal Navy, protecting the vital shipping cargo that kept Britain going during the First World War.

He died of cancer while patrolling the coast of South America aboard HMS Bristol on 26 March 1915 and was buried ashore in this remote Chilean outpost when they docked.

Remote though it may be, visitors do still come. Thousands of tourists filter through Punta Arenas every year to take in the wild countryside and spot the penguins that flock here. The town’s cemetery has now found its way onto the visitor circuit and tributes are regularly found on the black slate headstone above Augustus’ grave.

To me these two remarkable examples show not only how far across the planet the World Wars touched, but how far we’re willing to go, even a century later, to preserve the memory of its cost.

Even if, for now, we need to turn those journeys into digital adventures.