The Forgotten WWII Cemetery Tucked Away In The Desert

As it’s Remembrance Day I thought it important to raise awareness of the forgotten troops who are laid to rest in the most unlikely place.

Today marks 100 years since the end of the First World War and though a day to remember those who gave their lives in WWI, in recent years it has become a day to remember Commonwealth troops who have died in all wars across the last century.

So who are the troops who fell in 1942 that I’m referencing? They were part of Britain’s Eight Army in North Africa. As kids we’re taught about The Battle of Somme, we’re shown the horrific remains of concentration camps in Germany and we’re taken to Ypres on school trips. But, what if I told you that there was a place where almost triple the amount of WWII soldiers are buried compared to the Ypres Reservoir Cemetery in Belgium?

Of the 11,866 who are commemorated, 7,240 Commonwealth soldiers are buried in the town of El Alamein on the north coast of Egypt (150 miles north-west of Cairo). You’re probably thinking where? You’d be right in having this reaction. I had no idea this existed until I went to visit the nearby city of Marsa Matrouh.

I stepped out of the car into an unbearable heat. All I saw were some pick up trucks, some diggers and some confused labourers. Was I in the right place? I passed by some tarpaulin and was greeted with this, the forgotten cemetery…

So, what actually happened there all those years ago AND why have we forgotten about it? In January of 1942 the German commander, Erwin Rommel began to move eastward in an attempt to secure North Africa and the Suez Canal after their hold in Libya. By the Summer the Axis troops had reached the town of El Alamein.

The first of two battles commenced and 13,250 Allied troops were either killed or wounded. This battle ended in a stalemate and the British General, Claude Auchinleck was sacked, his replacement was killed and so Bernard Montgomery was left to take charge.

Montgomery had time to build an offensive whilst Rommel was still suffering from losses of the first battle and on the defensive. In October, Montgomery used a diversion in the South and attacked from the north. Progress was slow from the Allied forces but infantry in the Australian and New Zealand divisions helped create an opening in the Axis’ defence that the British could exploit.

On 2nd November Rommel told Hitler the battle had been lost and withdrew his men. Operation Torch confirmed the victory (Anglo-American landings in North Africa on 8th November). The second battle left 9,800 Allied dead, 9,000 wounded and 9,000 Axis dead, 15,000 wounded and 30,000 captured.

The battles were significant as they led to the German surrender in North Africa. So why have we forgotten about it? I don’t know. That’s it, I don’t have some grand reasoning other than that we feel detached from something so far from home.

Last month the British government, for the first time, paid for 6 veterans to visit the battlefield on the 76th anniversary. All of them, now in their 90s, recalled the horrors they experienced all those years ago.

I had no idea about any of this but maybe I’m just ignorant? I guess my point in writing this was not just to give you a small history lesson but to highlight the importance of remembrance. Here are thousands of soldiers who have been left in the desert and forgotten by the many. We take modern day values and ways of thought for granted. We need to remember all who have died and why.

Remembrance Sunday is not an attempt to glorify war but to simply remember those who have died. It is an opportunity to honour the dead. Attach whatever meaning you want to the day but ultimately the day belongs to the fallen soldier.

Wearing a poppy isn’t some kind of jingoism that should be associated with a warped nationalism but with respect and honour. Today, think of peace and hope.

Lest we forget.

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