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In Israel and Palestinian Territories, British Still Tend Memory of 16,000 War Dead

A tour of the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals oases of calm—but few living visitors

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The tombstone of Sgt. Sara Rachela Shoshana Blank, killed in December 1944 while serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service; Ramle War Cemetery, Tel Aviv. (Oren Kessler)
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William Shakespeare rests in Jerusalem, Harry Potter in Ramle, and Frederick Cohen in Gaza—three of the roughly 16,000 servicemen and -women buried in British Commonwealth war cemeteries in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Their graves are still scrupulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a century-old body that cares for resting places of 1.7 million war dead in 153 countries—among the largest ongoing memorial operations in the world.

In Israel, the commission maintains six cemeteries; there are another two in Gaza, and one in the West Bank, just across the Green Line in Tul Karm. The graves are a reminder of WWI’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign—a blood-drenched, nearly four-year affair that cost half a million lives on the Allied side alone but helped topple the Ottoman Empire and ultimately paved the way for Israel’s creation.

Shuttling between the cemeteries is an experience both gripping and grim and a reminder of the motley crew of fighters the wars brought together in life and death. The remains of Britons, Indians, and Anzacs lie beside those of Egyptians, Turks, and Jews from Jerusalem and London. Most of the graves date from WWI; there was no fighting in Mandatory Palestine during WWII, so graves from that era belong chiefly to soldiers who fought in neighboring countries—Egypt, Lebanon, Syria—and were killed or brought injured to British army hospitals in Palestine.

Some graveyards hold remains without names: In the Tul Karm War Cemetery lie 80 members of the Egyptian Labour Corps, seven Turks, three Indians and a German, all killed during the Great War. Only two—Punjabi sepoys, both named Khan but apparently unrelated—are identified. The Jerusalem Indian War Cemetery in the southern suburb of Talpiot lists the names of 78 Indians laid to rest there in a common grave. Of the 290 Turkish prisoners of war entombed there, however, just 50 are identified.

Others hold names without remains: Jerusalem War Cemetery is home to the Jerusalem Memorial, a monumental edifice inscribed with the names of 3,300 Commonwealth servicemen who fell in Egypt and Palestine between 1914 and 1918 but have no known graves.

The Jerusalem cemetery—on Churchill Boulevard at the entrance to Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus—also houses more than 2,400 marked graves, all from WWI. One marks the remains of the modern William Shakespeare, a driver killed on May 23, 1918. The CWGC’s meticulous records show the 41-year-old was the son of William Sr. and Fanny and lived at 3 Crewe Terrace in the Midlands city of Nottingham.

Nearly 80 percent of the CWGC’s annual $100 million budget is furnished by the United Kingdom, with other Commonwealth countries—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India—covering the rest. For the last five years, its regional supervisor for Israel and the Palestinian territories has been Paul Price, a congenial 48-year-old Welshman who has overseen Commonwealth war cemeteries around the world. He has made his home in Israel and now lives in Herzliya with his Israeli girlfriend. “It’s like living in France or anywhere else,” Price said. “You get used to living away from friends and family.”

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The largest war cemetery in Israel and the Palestinian territories is in Ramle, near Tel Aviv. Founded in the 8th century by Palestine’s newly arrived Arab armies, Ramle for centuries remained a small Arab city. Today it is a working-class town—its inhabitants three-quarters Jewish, one-quarter Arab—known primarily for its organized-crime families and for its prison, where Adolf Eichmann was held during trial and finally hanged. The few visitors to the city tend to be Israelis looking for cheap fresh produce at its century-old Ottoman market; though the entrance to the cemetery is open 24 hours a day, those who make the short trip from the city center are almost certain to find themselves alone.

Among its roughly 3,500 headstones they will find that of 19-year-old Pvt. Potter—whose grave is now listed as an official tourist attraction, through no fault of his own. The real-life Harry was killed in action in Hebron in July 1939, during the three-year Arab revolt against British rule and Jewish immigration.

Nearby is the tomb of Capt. Neil Primrose—a 34-year-old Liberal MP and, through his mother, a scion of the Rothschild banking dynasty—killed in 1917 while fighting the Turks in Gaza. There’s also the tombstone of Sgt. Sara Rachela Shoshana Blank, killed in December 1944 under unclear circumstances while serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service—the British Army’s women’s corps, which filled an array of logistical and support roles and sacrificed more than 700 of its 200,000 servicewomen during WWII.

While the graves inside Israel proper are well-kept oases of foreign influence, the CWGC’s two cemeteries in Gaza have suffered along with the territory. Gaza War Cemetery houses more than 2,600 gravestones, mostly casualties from the spring 1917 First and Second Battles of Gaza—costly offensives against the city’s Ottoman defenders that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the Middle Eastern theater. The burial ground is anchored by a Great Cross, and most of its graves are inscribed with the Christian symbol—except those of Lance Cpl. Cohen, 2nd Lt. J. Levy, and three other Jewish troops. There are also sections reserved for Hindus, “Mohammedans,” and Canadians—as if the last of these were a religion—and an adjoining plot for enemy Turkish soldiers.

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In Israel and Palestinian Territories, British Still Tend Memory of 16,000 War Dead

A tour of the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals oases of calm—but few living visitors