Ann George is summoned to attend a remembrance service
I have always enjoyed looking round graveyards. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother taking me with her to the huge cemetery in Grove Park, London, where there was the grave of a neighbour’s young daughter; the neighbour had had to move away and my mother had promised to tend the little girl’s grave, which she did regularly for years. A city child, to me the cemetery was space, a wide view and somewhere to dance around in; the first words I read were from tombstones, and even today I feel cheated if there is no personal information on a tombstone, or at the least a Bible quotation, so that I can imagine what that person had been like in his or her life. So, as a pre-school child, I would say to my mother regularly, “Mum, when can we go to the country?” My mother would look at the calendar on the wall, and, if I was lucky, would take the hint.
Unsurprisingly then, when a three-line whip from the British consulate was sent to our school for 2 people to attend the service of remembrance in the Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery in the hills above Jerusalem one Saturday morning in November, I was quite ready to volunteer to accompany my Principal. I have been to many of these sites: the huge cemetery in Rouen, for example, where my grandfather is buried, or the cemeteries around Ypres, some of which are the size of a garden and others enormous, or the deeply emotive cemetery in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, very close to the station that starts the Death Railway. I was looking forward to finding out what this Judaean war cemetery looked like.
The service was at 11 a.m., naturally, so I met my Principal at the Damascus Gate at 10:30. We took the road that follows the city walls northwards, then started to climb up Mount Scopus, where the cemetery is situated, very close to the Hadassah Medical Centre. The Old City lay below us as we drew up in front of the Jerusalem War Cemetery where over 3,000 casualties from the First World War are buried. Even in November it was sunny and bright, and there were sharp shadows on the ground from the gravestones and the large memorial cross. As always in these cemeteries there is the mown grass, carefully tended plants and an air of extreme tidiness. As we walked across to where the Dean of the Anglican Cathedral was standing, along with the British consul and several others, I was surprised to see another guest: the Turkish consul!
I knew the Turkish consul quite well, as his young daughter was in our primary school. He was very much the urbane, secular Turkish official, and he looked somewhat out of place in his extremely smart, conservative suit and tie. I was fascinated to know why he had joined us, and he explained that he had been given an invitation as two Turkish nationals were also buried in this cemetery. They were prisoners of war who had been working as orderlies, but who had died and they had been buried here. He took me over to their graves, and there were the carved turbans on their gravestones to prove it.
The Dean conducted a short, very Anglican, service and then one of our students played the Last Post on his trumpet. It was very moving to stand there, with the spicy scent of the fragrant bushes around us, the domes and spires of Jerusalem below us, and the white, ordered tombstones about us. These soldiers were buried in a very foreign place, but both the ambience and the words of the service reflected their shared pasts…..but I did wonder a bit about those Turkish prisoners of war!
Luckily, a three-line whip meant that there were drinks and canapés waiting for us at the British consulate, so we drove back down to East Jerusalem, having done our duty as British citizens, and had a comfortable hour or so lounging in the consulate’s well-padded armchairs; for once I did not drink my wine sitting in a white plastic chair at a white plastic table!