Memories of the World Wars in Asia
The recent centenary of the end of World War I highlighted the huge loss of life in both world wars. The total number of war-related deaths in the first conflict is estimated at 40 million, and the number in the second conflict at 70-85 million.
World War II took a particularly heavy toll on Asia. China suffered at least three million war-related deaths and Japan more than two million.
Among those killed in Asia were many servicemen and women who died on foreign soil. Large numbers of those from the UK and Commonwealth countries lie buried in beautifully maintained cemeteries across the continent.
These give visitors an opportunity to remember the dead, and provide a sobering reminder of war’s devastating toll. They are likely to be of particular interest to senior travellers, especially those whose parents or other relatives served in World War II.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains these cemeteries. Founded in May 1917 as an intergovernmental organisation, its role is to mark, record and maintain the graves and places of commemoration of those who died in the two world wars. Its work is funded by the governments of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
The cemeteries came into being after World War I, when British officials decided that each soldier who died should have his own named grave. As the British historian David Reynolds has pointed out, this was a far cry from a century earlier, when soldiers were simply dumped in mass graves after the Battle of Waterloo.
The phrase ‘Known Unto God’ on the graves of unknown soldiers was coined by the poet Rudyard Kipling, whose only son, Jack, was killed on the battlefield of Loos in 1915 and his body not identified until long after the war.
The cemeteries were controversial at first, as Reynolds notes. Some families wanted their loved ones brought home for burial. Others felt the rows of identical headstones were too regimented. But the cemeteries are recognised today as a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives in foreign fields. It’s hard to visit them and not be moved.
The commission maintains cemeteries, large and small, in at least 17 Asian countries. Two of the largest and most impressive are in Myanmar and Singapore.
Taukkyan War Cemetery, Yangon
The cemetery at Taukkyan contains the graves of more than 6,300 Allied soldiers who died in World War II campaigns in Burma (as Myanmar was then called) and Assam. A memorial bears the names of almost 27,000 other soldiers who died with no known grave. Many of the remains were relocated from cemeteries in other, more remote, parts of the country.
The cemetery is about 30 km north of central Yangon and can be reached by bus, although a more comfortable way to visit it is to hire a car and driver. It makes a memorable half-day trip.
Visitors will want to take their time at the cemetery, appreciating the silence as they reflect on the sadness of war and the sacrifices of so many young soldiers, many in their teens or early 20s.
Also in Yangon is a Japanese war cemetery containing the graves of many soldiers. About 170,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in Burma and many Japanese still feel a similar emotional attachment to the country as, say, Australians and New Zealanders do to Gallipoli in Turkey.
Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore
The cemetery at Kranji in northern Singapore is built on a large hillside and has a wonderfully spacious feeling, with excellent views of surrounding parts of the island. It’s a haven of quiet in this bustling city state.
While it can be reached by public transport, using a combination of bus and MRT underground train, an easier way is to hire a Grab car. Taxis can be difficult to find when returning from the cemetery to the city.
The cemetery contains the graves of over 4,400 Commonwealth casualties of World War II, more than 850 of them unidentified. The Singapore Memorial within the cemetery bears the names of more than 24,000 others who have no known grave.
Many of those buried here were Allied soldiers who died during the Battle of Singapore and the three-year Japanese occupation that followed. Others died elsewhere in Southeast Asia. As in Yangon, many Gurkha soldiers who fought alongside the Allies are honoured here.
Other Commonwealth war cemeteries
The Kanchanaburi War cemetery 130 km north-west of Bangkok in Thailand contains more than 6800 graves. Many of those buried here were among the 13,000 prisoners of war who died during Japan’s construction of the Siam-Burma railway in 1943 to support its large army in Burma.
The Delhi War Cemetery honours more than 1,000 Commonwealth casualties from World War II. Some are buried here and others commemorated. More than 87,000 people died while serving with Indian forces during the war, on battlefronts as far apart as North Africa, Italy, Burma and Malaya, as well as in India itself.
The Labuan War Cemetery in East Malaysia contains the graves of almost 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers, including Indian and Australian troops. Many were killed during the Japanese invasion of Borneo in 1941 and the four years of fighting that followed. Others were prisoners of war who died on the Sandakan Death Marches.
But not all the Commonwealth graves are laid out together in large numbers. In the Philippines, the commission maintains a single grave. It can be found in the huge Manila North Cemetery and is that of a Welsh chief officer in the British merchant navy, Owen Robyns-Owen, who died in January 1945.