On the second Sunday of every November, a quiet Remembrance Ceremony is held at the Karachi War Cemetery to honour the Commonwealth soldiers buried and commemorated at this mystical nook of glorious serenity in our city otherwise known for its chaotic routines.
High Commissions of the Commonwealth nations take turns organising the small service along with Commonwealth Ex-Services Association of Pakistan.
November 11, 2012 marked the 94th Armistice Day – the day Allied and German forces ended hostilities during WWI in 1918.
Owing to their strategic location the Karachi Garrison, the Karachi Port and the Drigh Road Air Field played significant roles during WWI and WWII. Apart from this logistic importance which exists to date, the Karachi War Cemetery adds greater character and martial assortment to the city’s stature as a true metropolis worthy of tourism.
Heading towards Millennium Mall from the Aga Khan University Hospital and passing by the main gate of the National Stadium, nearly 500 metres ahead on the right side of the Dalmia Road stands the impressive KWC. If approached from Rashid Minhas Road, this momentous monument falls on the left less than a kilometre after crossing the PAF Southern Air Command.
The Karachi War Cemetery was created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to receive burials of Commonwealth soldiers during WWII as well as remains from graves of soldiers scattered across cemeteries in North Western parts of undivided India (now Pakistan) which couldn’t be maintained. The cemetery was planned by architect Henry J Brown, who had also designed the Delhi War Cemetery and Madras War Cemetery in India.
The CWGC employs three gardeners and a manager on site. “My late father was employed as the first manager of the site by CWGC when it was founded. He served for decades till his retirement after which I was given the charge,” says Saeed Baqiri, Manager of the Karachi War Cemetery, who is also in charge of the Rawalpindi War Cemetery.
The Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Major General Sir Fabian Ware on May 21, 1917, with the tremendous task of marking and maintaining graves of all fallen members of the British Empire’s armed forces world over. In 1960 the Commission was renamed as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and to date pays tribute to over 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died during the two world wars. Since initiation, the commission has constructed over 2,500 war cemeteries in over 150 countries where Imperial or Commonwealth soldiers served.
The main gateway of the cemetery is a grand yellow structure built of sandstone extracted from Jungshahi in Sindh. This entrance itself designated 1939-1945 Karachi War Memorial is a sister monument to one at Delhi War Cemetery in India, which pays similar homage. It was inaugurated by President Iskander Mirza on November 30, 1957 in a stately ceremony.
Inside on the left and right ends of the gate respectively are quarters lodging the Cemetery Register in a bronze vault and a Memorial Book placed inside a bronze and glass casket. As agreed between the governments of India and Pakistan, the Memorial Book in Karachi is handwritten in Urdu and bound in green goatskin while that in Delhi is printed in Hindi and bound in blue goatskin.
Inside the cemetery, one is mesmerised by the magnificently planned landscape as well as sense of neatness and uniformity symbolic of soldiers on parade. There are 642 graves and each is marked by a beautifully carved white marble headstone, all of which are identical in shape, size and colour.
Facing the entrance in the centre is the Stone of Remembrance. It is a signature feature of all CWGC cemeteries across the world which commemorate over 1,000 soldiers, and was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Inscribed in large clear font are the words, ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’ which was chosen by none other than Rudyard Kipling from the Biblical book Ecclesiasticus. In 1915, Kipling had lost his only son John at the Battle of Loos. He, therefore, joined the Commonwealth (then Imperial) War Graves Commission soon after its creation to serve the cause for bereaved families.
At the rear end of the cemetery opposite the entrance stands the Karachi 1914-1918 War Memorial which is an imposing marble wall inscribed with the names of those 568 soldiers who served and died from 1914 to 1918 during WWI in the areas that fall within present day Pakistan. It was created to commemorate these men who lie buried in various cemeteries across Pakistan where preservation of their graves couldn’t be assured.
In the centre of the cemetery halfway between the Stone of Remembrance and the Karachi 1914-1918 War Memorial stands the towering Cross of Sacrifice with a sword depicting the martial importance of the location. It was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and is found in all CWGC cemeteries with over 40 war graves.
The tranquillity of KWC and details on each headstone narrating a unique tale captivates imagination. Citizens of Karachi must take pride in their city’s contribution towards the history of the two great wars.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2012.