Services are being held at CWGC sites around the world this week to mark ANZAC Day but, for the first time in living memory, there will be a ceremony in a remote and picturesque corner of the Indian Ocean.
The CWGC Diego Suarez War Cemetery, on the island of Madagascar, is hosting its first ANZAC service to commemorate the lone Australian casualty buried in the cemetery.
Several high-profile guests have been invited, including the President of the Republic of Madagascar, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the country’s Prime Minister, Olivier Mahafaly Solonandrasana, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and ambassadors from at least six countries.
Able Seaman John Frederick Ellis was 26-years-old when he died on 2 February 1940, and had been serving with the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on HMAS Stuart.
He was born in Concord, a suburb of Sydney, the son of Albert Edward and Annie Florence Ellis and was husband of Blanche Millicent May Ellis, of Arncliffe, New South Wales, Australia. His headstone reads: “Eternal rest, Grant unto them, O Lord.”
Earlier this year, the Australian High Commission, based at Port Louis on neighbouring Mauritius, contacted the CWGC asking if it would be possible to conduct a special ceremony at the site.
Susan Coles, the Australian Ambassador to Madagascar, said: “For the first time, that we are aware of, the Australian Embassy has organised an ANZAC Day commemoration at the Commonwealth War Graves site in Diego Suarez.
“We know there is one Australian serviceman buried there, along with many Commonwealth allies, and do not feel he should be forgotten. We regularly commemorate the sole Australian serviceman buried in Mauritius – also a World War Two navy man , Bandsman A.P. Partington – and feel the same respect and remembrance should be shown for his comrade in arms, in a neighbouring corner of the Indian Ocean.”
The CWGC Diego Suarez War Cemetery is in the town of Antsiranana, on the north-east coast of Madagascar, and contains 314 Commonwealth burials from the Second World War.
Alex Totomarovario is the CWGC’s Honorary Supervisor in Madagascar and has worked for the Commission for nearly 10 years. He said the cemetery is a beautiful and peaceful spot and he is delighted to be hosting the service for the Australian High Commission.
“The majority of people in Madagascar don’t know anything about this cemetery, so it’s very rewarding to be able to teach people about the wartime history, through commemoration.
“We’re delighted to accommodate the Australians for this ANZAC service and look forward to welcoming the President and Prime Minister of Madagascar, the Australian Ambassador, the British Ambassador and several other EU diplomats this week.”
Alex, who is also Head of the English Department at the University of Antsiranana, said there can be challenges in managing the Diego Suarez War Cemetery.
“Due to the extreme heat and dryness of the soil, the lawns can go a bit brown in the dry season, when there is not much water available. But we have an excellent team of gardeners who keep the lawns looking their best for the rest of the year.
“We use local plants and flowers and they grow well, thanks to the regular care from our gardeners, who have been trained in horticulture and maintain high standards.”
For logistical reasons, the service will not be on ANZAC Day itself (25 April) but two days later, on Thursday 27 April.