It was on one of many trips to Siracusa, Sicily, that I noticed a wrought iron gate on the side of the busy road, Behind the wrought iron gate were numerous uniform graves similar to the uniformity found at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. We tried to park to see what was in the cemetery as family cemeteries in Sicily are very different from this one. The parking was difficult, impossible that day, so we passed it by. We tried on subsequent jaunts to Siracusa to try to park and did once, but could not get into the gates. When we asked the Sicilians about it, they would call it the English Cemetery and said there were probably Americans buried there, too.
One May, appropriately nearing Memorial Day, the honoring of fallen heroes, we finally visited inside the gates.
The grounds are immaculately cared for and flowers and shrubs are well tended. These war cemeteries (CWGC) are distinctive in treating floriculture, or flower farming, which is a discipline of horticulture concerned with the cultivation of flowering and ornamental plants as an integral part of the cemetery design.
Established by Royal Charter in 1917, the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) pays tribute to the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. It is a non-profit-making organization that was founded by Sir Fabian Ware, then commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross. This sensitive man, driven by the enormity of large-scale loss, felt compelled to provide a final resting place for fallen heroes on foreign soil. By 1918, some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties were registered as having no known graves. These graves sites, are all over the world, and are cared for by the Commonwealth. The dead come from many different countries and cultures, all social ranks, standings and faiths.
Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial
Headstones and memorials should be permanent
Headstones should be uniform
There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed
Since its inception, the Commission has constructed 2,500 war cemeteries and plots, erecting headstones over graves and, in instances where the remains are missing, inscribing the names of the dead on permanent memorials. Over one million casualties are now commemorated at military and civil sites in some 150 countries. They build memorials for people who have no known grave and they keep records of the people who have died.
The grave headstones are uniform, similar to those in Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. and there are no distinctions made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed. Some have names and branch of service and some have none. Some graves have remains of multiple persons with no name or country. Where the deceased is known, there may be a name, country, personal family message or religious affiliation. The majority of those who are buried in this cemetery fell July 10, 1941 when the Commonwealth forces landed in Sicily or in the early stages of the next campaign. Many were part of the Airborne troops who were killed when strong winds pushed their gliders away from their targets. And some who died here are unknown, both in name or where they were from.
The operating cost of the Commission are split amongst the organization members in proportion to the number of their war dead. The six current members are United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.
We were the only ones in the cemetery that last Mother’s Day visit. I had a strong sense of separation from my own children across the waters on this day to honor mother’s and felt a kinship to the many graves around me also separated from their mothers across the waters. As I walked amongst the graves, reading the inscriptions therein, I felt a strong sense of respect and honor for these brave, fallen men, some not yet 20 and those in their prime of life.
The epitaphs, where the person was known were poignant. One merely said, “A Victim of the Second War World.” Others said, “Nine Soldiers of the Second World War” – Army Air Corps – Known Unto God; Another: “A Soldier of the 1939-1945 War”. And, “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember him”. “Not till the Loom is silent; and Shuttles cease to fly; Shall God unroll the canvas, and explain the reason why.” “May some kind hand, in some foreign land, Place a flower just for me, “My Hero”. May they rest in peace.