Casualty Biographies and the work of the CWGC in Egypt

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains 33 sites in Egypt commemorating the lives of over 42,000 servicemen and women in perpetuity. At the outbreak of the First World War, Cairo was headquarters to the United Kingdom garrison in Egypt. With Alexandria, it became the main hospital centre for Gallipoli in 1915 and later dealt with the sick and wounded from operations in Egypt and Palestine. General Headquarters, Middle East Command, was set up in Cairo shortly before the Second World War, remaining there throughout the war years.

The War Graves Commission has always believed in honoring all casualties equally, without distinction on account of rank, race or creed. In 1918, Sir Frederic Kenyon described his vision for the cemeteries as thus:

‘the general appearance of a British Cemetery will be that of an enclosure with plots of grass or flowers (or both) separated by paths of varying size, and set with orderly rows of headstones, uniform in both height and width. Shrubs and trees will be arranged in various places ….. The graves will, wherever possible face towards the east, and at the eastern end of the cemetery will be a great altar stone, raised upon broad steps, and bearing some brief and appropriate phrase or text. Either over the stone, or else where in the cemetery , will be a small building, where visitors may gather for shelter or for worship, and where the register of graves will be kept. And at some prominent spot will rise the Cross, as a symbol of the Christian faith and of the self sacrifice of the men who now lie beneath its shadow’ 

In any cemetery with over 40 graves you will find a Cross of Sacrifice, designed by the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield to represent the faith of the majority. Cemeteries with over 1,000 burials have a Stone of Remembrance, designed by the British Architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate those of all faiths and none. Lutyens based the geometry of the structure on studies of the Parthenon and steered purposefully clear of shapes associated with particular religions. A uniform shape and style of headstone was decided upon in order to represent equality in death.

‘It was ordained that what was done for one was done for all, and that all, whatever their military rank or position in civilian life, should have equal treatment in their graves’ – Sir Frederic Kenyon, 1918 


The Cairo War Memorial Cemetery

Headstones are made from a material sympathetic to both climate and ground conditions and in addition to a cross and personal inscription, have the soldiers name, regimental number, age (if supplied by the next of kin), date of death and the name and badge of the regiment or corps inscribed. Holders of the Victoria Cross have the medal inscribed on the stone.


Private Samuel Needham VC, Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt 

The Cemeteries in Egypt are places of great beauty and character with planting schemes carefully chosen for the Egyptian climate and cemetery location. I would urge you to, where appropriate, see these places as they pay tribute to the lives of remarkable men and women. There is much work to be done to document casualty biographies as where possible, each of these men and women deserve to have a ‘face’ and their stories told. I am looking forward to sharing a selection of their stories with you.

Lieutenant Royston Kenilworth Sydney May

Date of Death: 16th May 1915

1st Bn, Australian Infantry, AIF

Cairo War Memorial Cemetery – Grave Ref B.251


Informal outdoor portrait of four 1st Battalion officers. Identified left to right; Lieutenant (Lt) Royston Kennilworth Sydney May; Lt Herbert Gordon Carter; Captain Albert John Joseph George McGuire and Lt Philip Llewellyn Howell-Price, Image Source: The Australian War Memorial, P07973.016 

Royston Kenilworth Sydney May, a medical student from St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney passed away on the 16th of May in 1915 after sustaining a bullet wound to his left arm during the course of the Gallipoli landings. The battalion took part in the ANZAC landing on 25 April 1915 as part of the second and third waves, and served there until the evacuation in December.

‘Lieutenant Royston Kenilworth Sydney May, reported wounded, is the only son of Mr Sydney May, chemist, Manly. He was born in 1894, educated at King’s School, Parramatta, where he was a lieutenant in the school corps, and also the holder of the Burton Exhibition Scholarship. He afterwards joined the 34th Regiment, Newtown, with similar rank. When the war broke out Lieutenant May was in his second year of medicine at   St Andrew’s College, Sydney University. He was one of the fourteen King’s School cadets sent to the Indian Durbar, and formed one of the guard for King George during the picturesque and historic event. Lieutenant May took a keen interest in sport, and is a fine all-round athlete’ – Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1915.

He died of erysipelas as a result of his wound at No 1 General Hospital, Heliopolis, Egypt and was buried in the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt.


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