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Posted at: May 20, 2018, 2:09 AM; last updated: May 20, 2018, 2:09 AM (IST)

It’s here that the soldiers rest in peace

This German cemetery houses 206 Indian PoWs, who died at Half Moon Camp in WWI
It’s here that the soldiers rest in peace
In memoriam: The cemetery was in a state of neglect until the fall of Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy: CWGC

Sarika Sharma

For the last century, a cemetery at Zehrensdorf in Germany has been home to the graves of Indian soldiers and sailors who died while they were Prisoners of War (PoW) during World War I at a camp at Zossen, south of Berlin. The cemetery, which is managed by Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), houses 206 PoWs from India.

During World War I, two large PoW camps, named Halbmondlager (or Half Moon Camp) and Weinberglager, were maintained in the area. Here more than 1,50,000 Allied PoWs were interned. These camps held French, British, Russian, Tartar, Bashkir and Indian soldiers, who had been captured on the Western Front. 

Peter Francis, media and PR executive for CWGC, tells that after the rise of Hitler, access to the cemetery became difficult and then impossible during WWII.  From the end of World War II to the early 1990s, the land on which the cemetery is located was occupied by Russian forces for training purposes. “As we were unable to maintain the cemetery during this period, the casualties buried here were instead commemorated by name on special panels erected at the Indian memorial at Neuve-Chapelle in France,” he tells.

However, immediately after the re-unification of Germany in 1990, negotiations for the reconstruction of the PoW cemetery in Zehrensdorf began. CWGC started work on the restoration of the cemetery, which was completed in 2005. This was a mammoth task that involved removing unexploded ordnance from the site, manufacturing and installing new headstones and a new Stone of Remembrance. CWGC president, The Duke of Kent, attended the official dedication ceremony in 2005. Today, the cemetery is cared for by CWGC’s team of gardeners based in Berlin.

The plaque at Neuve-Chapelle has not been removed. “Although it is effectively ‘redundant’ now that we have identified graves, we felt it was historically interesting and decided to leave it,” says Francis. As for the circumstances under which the PoWs died, he says, “I believe the Indian soldiers were most likely captured during or after the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. They died of natural causes — sickness and disease mostly.”

The fallen

A total 74,196 servicemen from India died during WWI. Of these, 61,041 were from Punjab. CWGC looks after the graves, and those of casualties from WWII, and memorials in more than 50 countries — from the UK to Turkey; and from France to Iraq. 

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