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Commonwealth war cemeteries in Sri Lanka
Source: @ 1998 SERENDIB, The Magazine of Air Lanka

Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was known in colonial times held a strategic position in the Indian Ocean astride the allied sea route linking Australia, India and the Middle East. Most of the military deaths on the island during World War I occurred in Colombo Military Hospital, to which were brought sick or injured troops who were either based on the island or evacuated from passing ships.

During World War II Ceylon was a naval and air force base, a training ground for jungle warfare and a hospital and leave centre. Having become the hub of maritime power in the Indian Ocean, it was the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, Southeast Asia Command, from April 1944 to November 1945. Except for the servicemen and women who lost their Lives during the single air attack on the island, most of the casualties that occurred during this war were due to sickness or accidents.

There are six Commonwealth war cemeteries in Sri Lanka, four in Colombo, one in the hill capital Kandy and one in Trincomalee. Other Commonwealth war casualties rest in Jawatte Muslim Cemetery, Kuppiyawatte Muslim Cemetery, handy Civil Cemetery, George E. De Silva Park in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya Holy Trinity Churchyard.

A total of 1,999 Commonwealth war dead are commemorated in the war cemeteries or plots in Sri Lanka. There are two Commonwealth war memorials in Colombo. Liveramentu Cemetery: the first, the Liveramentu Memorial bears the names of 346 Commonwealth service men and one serviceman from the Netherlands; the other, the Cremation Memorial commemorates 165 servicemen of the Hindu faith.

Kandy War Cemetery at Pitakanda merits special mention, as it is often singled out as one of the most beautifully landscaped and maintained war cemeteries in the world. In a memorial erected in this cemetery in 1973 bears the names of 28 Italian prisoners of war who died in Ceylon between 1939 and 1945. These prisoners were buried in the Kandy War Cemetery and the former Combined Services Cemetery which is now called the Trincomalee War Cemetery.

Kandy War Cemetery

This Colonial War Cemetery is down by the Mahaweli riverside. During World War II there was a decisive moment for the British defending the empire against the Japanese after Singapore was occupied by the Japanese. The military headquarters were shifted from Burma to Ceylon and Lord Mountbatton gave his instructions from Peradeniya gardens to hold up the Japanese, undermining the dominance of the British Empire in this part of the world. Kandy played a special role during the colonial period under the British from the first to the last moment.

Formerly known as Pitakande Military Cemetery, it was acquired originally by the military authorities, and was subsequently taken over by the Commonwealth war graves commission as a permanent war cemetery. The Army Graves Service transferred war graves from Diyatalawa Boer Military Cemetery; (including graves which had previously been moved from Diyatalawa Camp Cemetery and Diyakaduwa Cemetery and from Bandarawala); Galkissa General Cemetery; Ihala Vitiyala Burial Ground; Kandy Civil Cemetery; Kollonawa Burial Ground; Kotagala Forest Creek Cemetery; Mahaiyawa Cemetery; Murugampola Cemetery; Rawatawatte General Cemetery, Moratura; Tibotugoda Etakorasa Cemetery and Trincomalee Hindu and Buddhist Cemetery. In 1958 the Commission moved in two graves from Kandy Civil Cemetery where permanent maintenance could not be assured. The special memorial Type C commemorates a naval man known to have been buried in the cemetery but whose grave could not be precisely located. It bears the superscription "Buried near this spot". There is 1 Commonwealth burial of the 1914-1918 war and a further 196 Commonwealth burials of the 1939-1945 war commemorated here. In addition there are 4 Foreign National and 2 non world war burials. No. of Identified Casualties: 201 (Source: CWGC)

An idea of the range of nationalities laid to rest on this Island comes from the records of the War cemetery in Kandy, where 201 war dead rest, among them 107 Britons, 35 East Africans, 26 Sri Lankans, 23 Indians 6 Canadians, 3 Italians and 1 Frenchman.

Harking back to an earlier war, 141 Boer prisoners of war who died in the Diyatalawa Camp between 1900 and 1902, and British servicemen who died during the same period, lie at the Diyatalawa Military Cemetery.

Liveramentu Cemetery

Liveramentu Cemetery is a large municipal cemetery about 1.5 kilometres from the centre of the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Torrington Avenue in the direction of Jaawatte, and is known locally as Jaawatte Cemetery. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Plot is in the left rear corner of the cemetery. The entrance to the cemetery incorporates the Memorial Tablets commemorating over 300 men who died while serving in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), whose graves either could not be found or, if found, could neither be permanently maintained nor (for religious or other reasons) moved to cemeteries where their maintenance for all time would be assured. The Liveramentu Cremation Memorial also stands within this cemetery and commemorates over 150 men of the Hindu faith who died while serving in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and who were accorded the last rite required by their religion - committal to fire. No. of Identified Casualties: 620 (Source: CWGC)

Maintenance of all Commonwealth war cemeteries (but not Diyatalawa) is carried out by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, through their Sri Lanka Agency, which is vested in the Sri Lankan minister of defense. Responsibility for the agency was delegated in 1982 to D.B. Sumithraarachchi, director of the National Botanical Gardens, which includes the Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya. He has proved to be an excellent choice. The Commonwealth war cemeteries under his care are beautifully landscaped and perfectly maintained.

“I am requested, on a regular basis, to lay wreaths on the graves of service men buried in Sri Lanka,” he says. “The requests are made by relatives living overseas, who wish these wreaths to be laid at the graves to commemorate a birthday or a wedding anniversary.”

The requests are always met, the wreaths sent by the Commonwealth War Commission. Sumithraarachchi adds that there are many wreaths laid during special celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, proving that, however long ago these men and women were interred, they live on in the memories of their loved ones.

Foreign missions in Colombo also organize and conduct services for their countrymen laid to rest on this island. Most take place in November, but Australia and New Zealand commemorate their fallen heroes on April 25, which is known as ANZAC Day. This recalls an allied landing at Gallipoli in 1915, which resulted in heavy casualties for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

Groups of veterans of World War II regularly visit Sri Lanka to rekindle old memories and for reunions with old friends and comrades with whom they shared many experiences during those turbulent war days. Ron Harris, a veteran of World War II, organizes annual visits, assembling groups of veterans mainly from the United Kingdom, but also from Canada and Australia.

“Their holiday begins the moment they step on board at London Heath row,” Harris says, explaining why he always chooses Air Lanka. “When they are greeted by the Sri Lankan crew on board, they are already transported back to the Ceylon of old, which they remember so well.”

Harris’ local counterpart, Siri De Silva, handles ground arrangements, and the veterans, whose ages range from 70 to 80, receive the welcome they so richly deserve. They are met upon arrival at Colombo’s Katunayake International Airport and garlanded by representatives of various organizations. When they disembark from their coaches at their hotel, they are greeted by Kandyan dancers and drummers, invariably with a caparisoned elephant on hand. Their stay on the island takes them to Commonwealth war cemeteries, where services of remembrance are organized for their fallen comrades.

The first of these annual veterans’ reunion tours took place in March and April 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary year since the cessation of hostilities. Their tour of the island took in not only the places they often frequented back in the early 1940s, but included many other places of interest to visitors, such as the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, tea plantations in the hill country and the spectacular rock fortress at Sigiriya.

They also attended a service dedicating a memorial to the 413th Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, at Koggala Air Force Base on April 5, 1995. The memorial honours squadron leader Leonard Birchall and his crew, who had taken off in their Catalina reconnaissance aircraft from here, spotted an advancing enemy fleet and sent a warning. As a result, the defenses of the island went on alert, allowing the successful defense of Colombo.

Perhaps what made the dedication of the Koggala memorial particularly meaningful was that Birchall, now over 80 years old yet still tall and straight as any young serviceman, was present and delivered an inspiring address.

Veterans continue to return to Sri Lanka, joining Harris and his wife, Beryl. Some make the pilgrimage every year, to relive those turbulent times during which, as the veterans tell it, they lived on the edge, and so lived to the full. Because the future was shrouded in uncertainty, they focused on the present, which made the good times the dances, parties and romances — all the more exciting.

Two Wrens members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service who re-visited Sri Lanka with the veterans’ group had been based at Trincomalee during World War II. Although they are now retired with a number of grand children each, the twinkle in their eyes was undimmed when they spoke of their “quick weekend trips” to Colombo, a few stolen moments to meet with admirers at the Galle Face Hotel. One can only imagine what memories these two ex-servicewomen shared when they revisited the hotel, which still stands on the city seafront.

Reunion groups revel in retracing their footsteps through the past, singing the old wartime songs and meeting up with their Sri Lankan counterparts, some even seeking out the batmen and cooks who served in the garrisons.

When the time comes for these survivors to join their fallen comrades, they may not go with much fanfare, so many years after the conflicts in which they served. But they too are heroes, no matter which country they call home.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka