a feeling i guess doesn’t lie. nor does grass gently rolling down the slope; nor do flowers by silent stones, nor stones standing in rows, saying things that i hope i heard.
there was a watchfulness about the sky… as if it wanted to know something.
for some reason, i wanted to go to the war cemetery at kranji around remembrance day this year. i say for some reason because i’ve never been too aware of the second world war or even the first world war. they have always seemed far away, both in terms of time and geography. in my mind, it all happened somewhere there and in a distant then.
this year though, i kept thinking about the war. could be because i’ve been working on something that needed research on the ww2 years of singapore; i heard personal accounts of the time, of bombs dropping at dawn, of panic, of evacuation, of ships torpedoed and missing death by an instinct. that coupled with my visit to the changi chapel museum earlier, the stories of the japanese occupation i’ve heard since coming here, the realisation that the bombing of singapore started on the same day as pearl harbour, knowing that sixty percent of the soldiers who died here were indians, and watching those bbc anchors with their tulip badges, suddenly made me feel the presence of the war right here. i told aj, we must go to the cemetery this week.
the simple slab of stone on the gate post had the words “kranji war cemetery 1939 1945” inscribed. i thought that’s just seventy odd years ago. it was only fifteen years before i was born. not in some unreachable past, this chaotic war.
we walked in, i had to pause at that “their name liveth for evermore.” liveth? i was about to think to myself, that’s a quirky brit thing, when i felt, maybe you had to look for higher language when you tried to encapsulate a humongous emotion.
i was looking at the stone of remembrance. it was designed by sir edwin lutyens, the architect of new delhi, the city where i was born. he designed it for the imperial war graves commission’s wwI cemeteries. lutyens had thought deeply about the design (wikipedia reading); he had also fought to keep it secular in structure and tone, and although it seems to be just a simple straight long (twelve feet) slab atop three steps with a few words inscribed, sophisticated thinking and geometry went into it. the lines are “based on studies of the parthenon”, the sides of the stones are not really straight; there are subtle curves, they’re parts of circles extremely large. the words – lutyens wanted to “inscribe thereon one thought in clear letters so that all men for all times may read and know the reason why these stones are placed” – were proposed by rudyard kipling. the inscription is from the book of sirach, which was written more than two thousand years ago by the jewish scribe shimon ben yeshua ben eliezer ben sira of jerusalem. kipling lost his only son in the war.
the grass on the slope is intensely green, the lines of stones call you. you don’t notice the people all around, it’s important to walk up to a stone and stand there for a moment. even as you approach the still, upright stones you know, you’ll never understand why this or where such courage comes from, but you must go and stand there, even if just for a while.
aj meets someone he knows from his national service days. he’s in the army, he has brought new recruits to see the cemetery.
we walk around. the imposing cross of sacrifice looms ahead. like the stone of remembrance, it’s to be found in most cemeteries of the war graves commission, now called the commonwealth war graves commission. more than 4,400 soldiers are buried or commemorated here. they lost their lives in the battle of singapore and during the japanese occupation, some died in other parts of south east asia.
the japanese landed here in february 1942 at a place quite close by, and within a week the allied forces had lost. singapore had been captured by the japanese. whatever i hear or read about that time always reminds me of tennyson’s famous poem:
not tho’ the soldier knew
someone had blunder’d:
theirs not to make reply,
theirs not to reason why,
theirs but to do and die:
~ from charge of the light brigade ~
the kranji area toward the north of singapore used to be a military camp. it was an ammunition magazine during the war. after the fall of singapore, the japanese set up a pow camp here. the cemetery was built where the allied soldiers had already started burying their dead.
beyond the rows of graves rises the war memorial. as we go up the steps, right in front lie wreaths of red tulips before a memorial wall with the words, “they died for all free men”. this is repeated in devnagari, gurmukhi, urdu, mandarin. the embassy of india has sent a wreath, so have the embassies of israel and the uk and spain and many other countries… there’s a wreath from the singapore armed forces veteran’s league…
some wreaths of red gerberas and other red flowers among them… and a lone bouquet of flowers wrapped in purple tissue. no name. someone has lost their own, maybe it was his or her or their father or grandfather or uncle or grandmother…
on the walls of the memorial are names, 24,346 of them. of soldiers whose remains could not be found. among them are airmen, men who toiled on the death railway, men and women lost at sea. from the uk, australia, canada, india, malaya, the netherlands, and new zealand. i have seen such walls before, in jerusalem, in paris… row upon row of names of those who died in the holocaust. i have thought of my daughter who is jewish and felt the walls coming closer.
now i looked at the names… shiv singh, sohan singh, suba khan, sukhdev singh. the walls closed in. how had i ever imagined the war was far away. 9th gurkha rifles, 14th punjab regiment… santa singh. that name has been only about silly, even uproarious, jokes for so long. i never thought there actually were people called santa singh. and now there he is.
step down from the memorial and you see a star on the floor before another wall with inscriptions. it’s the memorial for eight hundred indian soldiers who were cremated. across the green neatly mown grass to the right, a grave of soldiers of the straits settlements volunteer force. “the men whose names are recorded on these panels perished in captivity in february 1942 and lie buried here in one grave with ten comrades whose names are not known” is meticulously engraved in the tombstone.
beyond that, another bank of graves. it’s raining slightly by now. i go across and peer at the stones again, some of them are of twenty one year old kids, some of men of forty, some are hindu, some christian, some muslim, some jewish. one stone just says “a soldier of the 1935-1942 war” and below that are three words “known unto god”.
i stare at the words feeling their force. yes, no soldier is unknown.
the cemetery is impeccably maintained and someone who really understands flowers and their power works here. each gravestone has its little shrub of colourful blossoms. in this wide open place where the brave rest, the flowers bloom so prettily.
now as i write i feel rage, i feel anger against politicians and warmongers, against churchill and the hubris of his men who just got it all so wrong, against colonisers and their lack of respect for those they plunder and loot from, those they let perish in famines and wars.
but as i stood there, all that didn’t come to mind. something far more powerful held the moment. this is where all bs stops. the soldier has given his life, that’s all that counts. there is a rare nobility lying here among the flowers and the green, it intensely purifies you of the rot.
while making our way back we found ourselves in the woodlands park estate, which is right next to the cemetery. the roads were quiet and peaceful. i wondered if it got spooky at times, but no, there’s a serene clean calm around this whole place… you most likely feel protected, that’s all.
move him into the sun—
gently its touch awoke him once,
at home, whispering of fields half-sown.
always it woke him,…
~ wilfred owen, futilty ~
the power of the night, the press of the storm,
the post of the foe;
where he stands, the arch fear in a visible form,
yet the strong man must go:
for the journey is done and the summit attained,
and the barriers fall,…
~ robert browning, prospice ~
the cemetery also has a few ww1 graves. there’s a memorial to unmaintainable graves and the singapore civil hospital grave where 400 people are buried, many of them civilians. the state cemetery is part of the complex, yusof ishak and benjamin sheares, the first and second presidents of singapore, are laid to rest here. a military cemetery adjacent has non-world war graves.
if you’d like to find out more
road to singapore, turf club avenue, jalan kasau, jalan rasok, jalan bumbong, 18/11/2016 #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so anthony john or aj as i call him, my walking partner, and i decided to do fifty walks in the island to celebrate #SG50. well, we didn’t stop at fifty; couldn’t. there was still so much to see and feel and also how not to let the hot, merciless, climate-change sun not have its way with us. so the walks continue, as does the walk talk. hope you enjoy, try to bring an umbrella.