‘The problem is not an easy one’ … cemetery construction, horticultural schemes and the Egyptian climate

In 1948 Hubert Worthington, the Principal War Graves Commission  Architect for Egypt and North Africa was busy adding his comments to the sketch plans, estimates and reports for the new cemetery construction at Tel-el-Kebir. The war memorial cemetery at Tel-el-Kebir, 110 kilometres north-north-east of Cairo, was used from June 1915 to July 1920 and increased after the Armistice when graves were brought in from other sites, including 15 from the International Christian Cemetery at Zagazig. During the Second World War, Tel el Kebir was a hospital centre and the site of a great ordnance depot with workshops for the repair of armoured cars and other weapons of war.

The form A for Tel-el-Kebir lists 608 burials consisting of 497 British burials, 40 allied burials, 66 Polish burials and 5 civilians. The Deputy Director of Works estimated the total area of land required to be 6098 square meters – thereby allowing 10 square meters per internment at a cost of £22 . 12 shillings and 9 pence per grave* (which included the cost of the headstone). 

The remarks listed on the form A by Sir Hubert Worthington are interesting as they highlight the challenges of laying down a cemetery in the Egyptian terrain. He wrote:

‘The problem is not an easy one as four separate units have to be welded into the design. The 1882 cemetery with its magnificently grown trees makes a fine centre. New planting will continue existing palm trees with a Eucalyptus grove as a background to the East & close planting (as a screen on each side of the new main entrance to the 1914-18 cemetery) An entrance feature & gate on the road will prevent trespass and the unfortunate new native huts must be walled out with 8 foot walls as shown & be planted out’

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A view of the 1882 Cemetery, Tel-el-Kebir as mentioned in Worthington’s 1948 notes               Image Source: The Welcome Collection (1910 – 45) 

Worthington worked with, rather than against the landscape to produce beautifully ordered cemeteries with sparse but careful planting in Egypt’s tough environment. One of Worthington’s toughest challenges proved to be the cemetery at El Alamein where seven thousand men are buried with over 8,500 soldiers and 3,000 airmen  commemorated on the Alamein memorial. He declared that he would endeavour to follow the brief to build and plant along the same lines as the cemeteries from the Western front however the climate in Egypt required modifications. He suggested high walls to keep out drifting sand and shady pergolas with cool terraces to provide shelter from the sun. Where grass could not be grown owing to the lack of water the earth would have to be panned and plants such as cacti and succulents would be used rather than the thirsty roses and shrubs grown in other parts of the world.

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A photograph from the Australian War Memorial showing how difficult a task it was to provide a horticultural scheme for Egypt                                                                                            Image Source: The Australian War Memorial, MEA0953 refers 

The form A for the cemetery at Heliopolis, written in 1947,  lists 1630 British burials, 71 allied burials (inc: 28 Poles), 148 enemy burials  and 2 civilians. The Deputy Director of Works estimated the total area of land required to be 60357 square meters – thereby allowing 32.6 square meters per internment at a cost of £14 . 8 shillings and 0 pence per grave* (which included the cost of the headstone). After the war, 125 graves were moved into the cemetery from Mena Camp Military Cemetery where permanent maintenance was not possible due to sand movement. In all 1,742 Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War were buried or commemorated in the cemetery along with the 83 war graves of other nationalities reflecting the diverse make up of the Middle East Command in the World War Two. Worthington noted:

‘This cemetery is a very important one. Before my visit in 1943 the general layout had been made and most of the burials were completed. The result was very rigid and bleak. However with water and Nile mud available at the present design, depending for the most part on grass and trees should give a satisfactory result. The surroundings are ugly and the grooves and avenues of Eucalyptus trees will give the necessary seclusion and sense of peace. The war cross in a central position has avenues of cypress trees on its four sides and Ficus trees are arranged elsewhere to form arches and shady walks. The entrance is flanked by Rest Houses and within is a simple and dignified setting of the war stone. Much will depend on fine grass lawns and the use of trees and flowers’

Sometimes when we speak of Egypt our minds rarely move past the antiquities of Ancient Egypt however war has played a huge part in Egypt’s modern history. I cant help but consider how proud Worthington would be to see the horticultural work being conducted in the Egyptian cemeteries today where trees and flowers are being used to their fullest effect.

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The cemetery at Heliopolis, Image Source: Twitter @walid_matrawy  CWGC Egypt 

The cemeteries are beautiful, peaceful resting place for hundreds who tragically lost their lives – carefully tended with immense pride by skilled Egyptian gardeners. In these cemeteries we have an overlooked monument to Egypt’s significance in the wider context of world history; one that will remain as important as any sarcophagus.

Please take a moment to consider visiting the cemeteries if your travelling to Egypt  – further information on visiting the cemeteries is available on the Commonwealth War Graves website https://www.cwgc.org/

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Photograph of Hubert Worthington from the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre    Reference: MR4/23/91/160

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