Empty Graves

Empty graves at Poznan’s Cytadela British Cemetery are no mystery anymore. British soldiers were left in bushes. Their gravestones were removed from burial place in Piła – Leszków and transferred to Poznań leaving eighteen soldiers unnamed. Removed by… Commonwealth World Graves Commission!

British cemetery at Poznan’s Cytadela. Nice rows of white gravestones characteristic for those of Commonwealth soldiers. Most of them from the times of II World War: airmen, prisoners of war including those of Great Escape from Sagan, casualties of German occupation of that land.

But only sharp eye can distinguish a single row of eighteen, white steles with British names and common date of death: Spring of 1915.

Mystery number one: how did they find themselves in Poznań?

Followed by mystery number two: their graves in Poznań are… empty!

Eighteen British soldiers were actually  put to rest seventy miles from Poznań a hundred years ago.

Now, their graves are overtaken by bushes…

Graves located!

29 October 1914, Ypres, Belgium.

Scots Guardsman Joe Garvey shot for the last time. His rifle barrel got swollen with the constant use. His friend, Stringer had died in his arms, shot through his heart, but there was no time to lose: he was one of the last to shoot.

Joe looked ahead: dozens of men in “feldgrau” uniforms were lying around. He wiped drops of sweat from his forehead, even that it was the end of October. Looking inside his own trenches he got seized by the throat: corpses of British soldiers, blood mixed with mud and his brother in arm Roff shot in the throat.

When German attack slowed down they both decided to retire to nearby farm buildings hoping to find more British troops there.

To their surprise empty farmyard was suddenly swarming with German infantry who ordered them to give up their arms at once. Scots Guardsmen had to follow the orders: they left their rifles and- with some hesitation- put their hands up. German officer told them with broken English that from now the war was over for them. Led to the nearby barn, to their surprise, they met some more British soldiers there: Buchanan from Glasgow, Curl from Liverpool, Handley, Haylor, Markland, Stimpson, the Londoner and many others.

Soon Germans formed a band of prisoners of war and ordered them to march on. Many other British soldiers joined. That way the slaughter called The First Ypres ended up for them. It was 29  October 1914.

After a long march they reached the Belgian railway station of Courtrai, where they entrained in horse boxes, packed in  like sardines, standing up and taken on a 1000 kilometers, four- day journey deep into Germany.

They were told to enter cars segregated into regiment units: Scots Guards, Black Watch, Camerons, Grenadiers, South Staffs, South Wales Borderers, Welsh Regiment, Gloucesters and a few odd units of Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery. About 240 men at this stage.

They were packed into cattle trucks, forty men each, standing room only. To discharge natural deposit Germans provided them with old mess tins. Brits were waiting to empty them until passing through big German railway stations finding a target amongst the faces of Germans standing on the platform, as Garvey recognizes.

Schneidemuhl where they came on 5 November 1914 looked exactly like that.

After over 100 hours of journey in stinking cattle trucks POWs reached the place. Dirty and hungry Brits came to Schneidemuhl, the town that after the next thirty years would be back to its origin Polish name of Piła. But in the meantime in German hands.

Joe Garvey noticed, that the must be some railway station of great importance for Germans: all over there platforms were full of trains from eastern front. German soldiers looked at Britons with great interest. Malicious comments were expressed, especially addressed to Scots in kilts. But brave soldiers just ignored them.

On the first platform, in a German Red Cross point a twelve-year-old girl was watching just- come prisoners of war from the western front. Pete Kuhr used to come here to help her Grandmother, the German Red Cross representative. They served bread and coffee to wounded or those from German soldiers, who got insane at front.

Pete’s early enthusiasm to war was soon followed by deep pacifism. From the very first days of the Great War she had been writing her diary in which she described the fate of prisoners of war coming to her town. The diary was discovered after sixty years and published in Germany in 1982 and-translated into English- in UK in 1998 with a great success: “There we’ll Meet Again”.

In the meantime British soldiers were led to the camp. The date was 6th of November and bitter cold in that part of the world, as Joe Garvey remembered. Soldiers, who expected that the worst is left behind soon experienced deep disappointment.

The camp was occupied by thousands of Russian soldiers from the Tsar’s army. Brits were offered… holes in the ground and up the hill that were vacated by the Russians. It’s hard to believe but that conditions lasted to early January 1915, when they were housed in new wooden barracks without beds and lights but with two large stoves! It was a great improvement indeed!

Unfortunately, the effects of those conditions were easy to predict: as early as  December 1914 the epidemic of cholera broke out in the camp. The first victims were Russians, followed by the ten percent of the British population of the camp.

About mid-February Joe Garvey became ill. He was escorted by his friend to a room, where a Russian doctor, prisoner himself, was seeing the sick. He pointed to a yellow patch at his stomach, the infallible mark of typhus fever. He was taken to  so-called hospital, where to accommodate the ever-increasing victims, long tunnels were dug underneath the ground and the patients were placed on each side of the tunnel, feet facing, as Joe recalls.

The original German treatment was to starve the sick men until there was nothing left to feed the typhus germ, which died itself. If patient survived it, soon was sent back to the camp. If not, his colleagues carried him in a plain coffin to Leszków cemetery, nearly two miles away. Mortality rate was very high those days.

“Carry today, be carried yourself next week” was a popular saying among the prisoners. Some days funeral procession carried a large number of coffins. Many bearers were gathered around each one as they were so weak that could do only short turns before having to rest, wrote Joe in his memoirs.

Carry today, be carried tomorrow – Funeral on the way to cemetery in Leszków.

22nd August 1924. Leszków, a Piła’s suburb.

Mr. James wiped sweat from his forehead and looked once more at the picture: to the right of a black monument of British soldiers were clearly seen four crosses with the names on: Browne, Cuthill, Devine, Stimpson… What’s going on?!

Mr. James, representative of British War Graves Commission posted to German Schneidemuhl to carry exhumation of British prisoners of war had a hard nut to crack. Here, after dig up four British graves, eight similar coffins were found placed very closed to each other.

Mr. James had already sent some lorries with coffins with British soldiers to their new resting place near Berlin. So far the only problem was German representatives of Schneidemuhl council, who- after Treaty of Versailles – were no favourable to British. It has its repercussions: there was no proper list of graves, most documents from the burials were lost, and finally the key from the main gate to the cemetery got lost as well…

But all in all the exhumation works started even though that hot summer wasn’t the happiest moment for that…

Mr. James nodded his head to four gravediggers from Schneidemuhl and they began to open the lids of eight coffins. Soon he could see …naked corpses without any signs of personality or even nationality. For sure, four of them were British, but… which ones?! He took a deep breath and stepped down…

In the evening in his hotel room in Schneidemuhl Central Hotel he typed his report to London:  sixty seven identified corpses had been sent to Berlin, leaving eighteen, which showed traces of other nationalities (icons) placed in some coffins.

Exhumation Report 1

Exhumation Report 2

London replied soon:

“If it is impossible to identify the eighteen, leave them in situ”. And so was done. Eighteen British soldiers were put to rest with „other nationalities”, as it was written in report.

They were left and only the black monument, placed there by comrades on 1st July 1916, founded thanks to collection of widow’s mite, bearing the inscription “They did their duty” and more than thirty names, has shown proudly the place for one hundred years now.

Sometime after exhumation, decision was made to commemorate the eighteen with gravestones characteristic for the ones fallen at King’s service.

The Burslem and Son Company from Tunbridge Wells near London made inscriptions on white steles. Except for basic dates about soldiers, units badges, some very personal – where it was possible- were made as well: short farewell from the dearests:

“He did his duty, rest beloved” – Pte Buchanan from Glasgow; “Some day we will understand…”– Pte Mellor from Hasland ;

“May the Lord rest his soul in peace. Loved by us all and never to be forgotten”- Pte Stimpson from London.

British remembered the eighteen left in Piła. In September 1938 a representative of Commonwealth War Graves Commission visited that place, and in his report to London he says, that the British quarter in Piła’s POWs cemetery is in good state.

Herr Andressen, “Oberinspektor” responsible for the “green areas” in Schneidemuhl made sure, that Mr. Batty from CWGC had seen what he was supposed to see, no more: nice graves of eighteen British soldiers, paths among the graves and flowers planted.

Three months later the nazis would raze to the ground Jewish part of the cemetery. But in September 1938 one of two German gardeners employed to maintain that place fixed the chains surrounded the Black British Monument. He was paid five Reichsmarks… They agreed to make other necessary works, including cleaning the black monument and steles with the” chemical agents next year” in… September 1939.

The traces of bullets on the black monument are apparently remnants of heavy fights took that winter of 1945, when Schneidemuhl was declared a fortress by the nazi general SS Remlinger. He tried to escape with his troops from the city surrounded by Red Army forces through nearby forests.

Soon after the Second World War, in 1949 old POWs cemetery got a neighbour: on the opposite hill a new cemetery of Red Army soldiers killed in action fighting with Germans in 1945 arose. Soon it became an apple of the eye of a new, communistic government in Poland. For the peace of mind they put the official note at the gate of POWs cemetery informed, that “fighters for freedom” rest there…

In 1958 though, the cemetery was visited by one of the Commission’s Regional Directors. He reported that access to the cemetery had become difficult, the site was unmaintained, the headstones dirty and the cemetery appeared to be generally reverting back to nature.

Graves in 1959 (Picture by CWGC)

As a result of this, a proposal was raised in a Commission meeting held in May 1959 in London, to move the headstones to Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery to assure their future maintenance. Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery contained a large plot of Second World War Commonwealth graves and the Commission’s land rights had been formerly recognized by the Polish Government.  The cemetery was well maintained and there was no difficulty with access.  The proposal was agreed and then the headstones were subsequently moved to Poznan.

Monument in 1959 (Picture by CWGC)

Scots Guardsman Joe Garvey was lucky:  orderly bribed by Joe’s two Jewish Russian friends fed him secretly with… goat’s milk and seed cake, which helped Joe return from the Hades’ gates for the first time.

For the second, when fury German sentry put a gun against his chest and pulled a trigger.  Joe opened his eyes while was carried on a stretcher to a camp mortuary. A tiny box made of gunmetal, where he kept letters from his fiancée saved his life.

And for the third time, when German court martial changed the death penalty sentence for disarming and assaulting a German sentry.

After three months’ detention in camp prison Joe was back to camp’s life. Soon he organized a football team. Some of the British team members visited a camp’s commandant, fat and grey-haired captain Bond, a German Jew to ask for permission to turn a large space right in the middle of the camp into a football field. Permission was granted right away.

Until the end of the war Britons were never bitten both in football and rugby, and they made their plays so attractive, that many German civilians from Schneidemuhl made it their regular Sunday afternoon entertainment.

Joe Garvey (Picture by Graeme Garvey)

Joseph Garvey died in 1962. He managed to write his memoirs from the times of his fight and stay in prisoners of war camp. Such precious document, issued by members of his family in 2012: Elaine Carville, David Sheehan and Graeme Garvey. They hope to come one day to see the place from their Granddad’s memories…

Against all odds, the black monument is still standing right there,  where was placed nearly one hundred years ago. Remembers the names of those British soldiers, who were not destined to see their country anymore. Remembers outstanding athletes Pte Ross of Brora and Pte Handley, footballers from British Army team; remembers Pte Bolland, bitten over a barrel by six German soldiers for disarming a sentry, which did not kill him. It was the typhus germ, that got hold and never got out of its grip, as Joe recalls.

Files of Piła cemetery found in CWGC headquarter in Maidenhead confirm, that case was closed up in 1960 by moving the eighteen headstones to Poznań. As if with some kind of relief somebody wrote across the files:

“Closed. Commemorated in Poznan Old Garrison cemetery, Poland”.

Very kind and helpful officers from Maidenhead couldn’t believe in that story when I paid them a visit in 2015. With great interest they watched pictures and film taken at Piła- Leszkow cemetery. They were no aware not only of the eighteen British graves but also of existence of the cemetery itself. Simply it’s not on CWGC list of cemeteries, where British are buried!

What’s more, thanks to a plan sketched by T. Mc Greig in November 1924 we can reconstruct very precisely three collective graves of Britons.

Mc Greig took…four corners of the black monument as a waypoint and measured the centre of each grave. He described not only the length of each grave, but names of soldiers buried.

Mc Greig’s plan of cemetery

The rest is a pure mathematics: if two of graves measure 18 feet each, roughly 5.5 meters and four coffins are there, each one would take 1.35m wide. That’s too much for that place or… there are tight eight coffins of standard 0.7m width each. The third British grave is 42 feet long, 14.7m. Divided by 20 coffins gives… 0.7m each.

Above calculations confirm Mr. James’ report: facing rapid spread of typhus epidemic on spring of 1915 Germans – or to be precise – Russian prisoners buried victims in a great hurry, without special attention to nationality or religion. Casualties were united by common fate and common death. Soon living conditions in camp improved, and so were burials. But in the meantime:

Funeral 1915 in Leszków (Piła)

Rows of white gravestones in Poznań. Eighteen of them seem to be at a wrong place. And question remains: should they be brought back to the place, where ashes of those who “did their duty”, who gave their young lives for the King and Country were put to rest for ever?

Empty graves in Poznań

Eighteen young men came from the area that covers whole Great Britain: from Scottish Brora, Glasgow, Dundee, and down the country: Bristol, Hasland , Painswick or London. Left their families and homes, of which some are still standing, to go for a one way trip.

The Black Monument has miraculously still stood guard, even though some of  French, Belgian, Jewish, Russian, Mohammedan memorials vanished a long time ago along with their gravestones. Like those of two Russian Jews, who had saved life of Joe only to became victims of typhus fiver soon after.

But the names of thirty three British soldiers carved on the monument by Private Davis, a sculptor from Wales, POW himself one hundred years ago still remind, that eighteen of them are still there.

Black Monument in Piła

Contemporary Poles don’t know much about the Great War overwhelmed by disaster of WWII that struck them. But is it any excuse to forget about British sons, fathers, husbands who found a resting place near our town for ever?

To find their next of kin seems to be now the most important thing to do. To show them the place among the pines, which is for ever England, as Rupert Brooke wrote in his moving poem.

Prisoners of war cemetery in Piła-Leszków: CWGC branch in Belgium, responsible for that part of Europe, asked for their attitude towards British graves in Piła has just began their own investigation: in February 2016 the head of the office came to assess the chances to bring back gravestones to the place where they once belonged.

To bring them back is not only to mark the resting place. It’s to bring back all that, what they fought and died for and what is saved on the gravestones for ever: badges of their regiments, their names and farewell from those at home, whom they missed most dying somewhere in the underground tunnel.

Died for the King and Country:

Pte Browne, H., Pte Buchanan, J.N., Pte Crabtree, A., Pte Curl, W., Pte Cuthill, J.G., Pte Cuthill, J.G., Pte Devine, H., Pte Haylor, S.H., Pte Jackson, J.G., Pte Markland, A.E., Pte Mellor, E., Pte Monk, E.J., Pte Purver, A., Pte. Ross, A., Pte Shaw, W.H., Pte Stimpson, W.E., Pte White, F.F., Pte Yates, W., Unknown, probably Pte J. Mc Lachlan

They Did Their Duty.

The original CWGC list of the Eighteen still remaining in Piła


Sadly, it’s been two years after I wrote above. I have been trying to attract interest of British press and historical magazines that write about “our brave soldiers of Great War: send us your story…”, great and famous titles of magazines involved here; BBC; some British veterans’ institutions involved in keeping up memory of soldiers died in Great War; members of Scottish Parliament, whom I had the honour to speak personally about cemetery; British authors writing books about British POWs fate during the Great War…

Sadly, only a very few of them mustered up courage to sent back any answer: “Unfortunately we are not interested…”.

Ignoring seems to be the best answer for the rest of them.

How?! Not interested in your countrymen who forgotten a long time ago rest in bushes somewhere far away from Britain?! Shame indeed!

And suddenly break through: The Scottish Sun decided to write about that story: on the Veterans Day 2015!

Article in The Scottish Sun

I will keep on commemorating the Eighteen from Piła – Leszkow against all odds.

Also many great thanks for those, who made this story possible:

Anna Gault (The Scottish Sun), Graeme Garvey( Grandson of Joe Garvey), dr Willy Kenefick (Dundee University), Maciej Usurski (Pila Staszic’s Museum), Lesley Duncan (Scottish Pipes band, sponsor of Polish school and great friend of Poland), Marek Fijałkowski (Museum of Pila), Roman Chwaliszewski (head of history of the town of Pila), Krysia and Marek Plucińscy (the spirit of Pila town), Dorota Bonzel (Tygodnik Pilski), CWGC officers in Maidenhead.