Owned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), Brookwood Military Cemetery is the largest war cemetery in the UK. It is located right next to the Brookwood Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Western Europe and between them they cover 250 acres of land dedicated to the burial and remembrance of the dead. In the heart of leafy Surrey just south-west of London, a visit makes for a fascinating yet sobering day out.
Brookwood Military Cemetery was opened in 1917, using surplus land from Brookwood Cemetery, known at the time as the London Necropolis. The CWGC had only started in May 1917, and this was their first UK cemetery. The Commission had a policy of not repatriating the bodies of those who had fallen overseas, but they still needed somewhere for those who had served and yet died in the UK - many died of war wounds once they were back, during training, in accidents, or for any number of reasons. The remit was that anyone who had served in World War I, from 1914 - 1921 would be entitled to a military grave, as would anyone who served between 1939 - 1948 in World War II.
Visiting Brookwood Military Cemetery
The cemetery is open every day and you can either just show up and wander around, or take one of the guided tours run by the CWGC. These are free and are the best way to get a real understanding of what you are looking at, the history of the site and the stories behind some of the gravestones.
We joined a tour being run in honour of International Women's Day, focusing on the women who are buried within Brookwood. It was a bitterly cold day in early March, with a grey sky, incessant drizzle and a biting breeze, but our tour guide met us full of enthusiasm and gave us a fascinating tour around the site.
It is a beautiful place, like all CWGC cemeteries it is immaculately maintained. Surrounded by tall trees and with the standard row of planting just in front of the uniform graves, there is a serene, bucolic atmosphere to the place. Gardeners work full time to keep the place looking so good, and even in the depths of winter the grass was green, plants were budding and the winter planting was vibrant.
From the near distance just behind the tall pines came the constant crack of gunfire for our entire tour. I'd like to think it was just the Territorial Army training, but couldn't shake the feeling that our army is preparing for worse, as we are just one week in to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Normally when I visit a war cemetery there is relief that that is all behind us, that these people gave their lives to enable us to live in peace. Now it feels much more immediate, that there may well be more gravestones joining the rows already there.
There are over 5,000 war graves from both World Wars from across the Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK) and over 800 from other nationalities - Belgian, Czechoslovakian, French, German, Italian, and Polish. There are also two memorials to those who have no grave - the 1914-1918 Memorial has the names of over 260 who died in the UK during the World War I but whose graves could not be found and the 1939-1945 Memorial commemorates over 3,400 who died at sea, in raids on occupied Europe, or while on service outside the main areas of war including special agents who died behind enemy lines.
The earliest graves in the cemetery from 1917 are closely packed together. A trench would be dug and whichever bodies arrived on that day would be buried next to each other. The trench would be filled in and a new one dug for the following day. This is why in the first part of the cemetery, some of the gravestones are right next to each other and there are random gaps between others - the war was still taking place and they were conserving space, not knowing how many they would need to bury in the days ahead.
Our tour took us to some of the women's graves within the walls, like that of Sarah Ellen Garbutt, a nurse who volunteered with the Canadian Army Nursing Service, was posted to the UK but died just a month later of abdominal cancer in August 1917, or Ellen Meares, a nurse who was deployed to France, survived the war but died of the Spanish flu in 1919, or Edita Sedlakova, a Czech who joined the RAF and snuck on board a plane being flown home by her husband in 1945, which crashed with the loss of all lives. There is Private Evelyn Connor from the Canadian Women's Army Corps, described as 'often in trouble' and seemingly a bit of a whirlwind, who stepped into a road and was hit by a bus in Farnham, just down the road from the cemetery, in 1944.
The most famous woman remembered in Brookwood Military Cemetery is probably Violette Szabo who worked for the SOE behind enemy lines during World War II. On her second mission in France she was captured as she protected the lives of some senior French Resistance members, firing at the enemy until she ran out of bullets. She refused to divulge any information, was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, and was executed just before the end of the war. Her body was cremated at the camp and so her name is engraved on the World War II memorial in the cemetery. There is also a bust of her on the Monument to SOE Agents on the banks of the River Thames outside Lambeth Palace in London.
One of the loveliest aspects of the CWGC graves is that family members were allowed to add a personalised inscription to each headstone. The headstones may be the same, but each has a small element of individuality to it. One I saw at the cemetery was inscribed with
Mother I've weighed the risks which I prefer to living in a world dominated by Nazis. Bill
and you can just tell it came from a letter he wrote to his Mum. She must have been so heartbroken, and so proud of him, to put that on his headstone. He had been a Gunner in a Lancaster Bomber which had come under heavy flak bombardment, dived low to avoid it and got caught by machine gun fire, which hit him. He died the following day of his injuries at Salisbury Hospital. He is one of only a few to not have a religious symbol on his headstone, whether through an absence of his faith or that of his parents after his death is unknown.
There is another grave to a Sgt J.H.M Ellis, an RAF pilot who died in the Battle of Britain at the age of just 22. His body was only found in 1992 from where his plane had crashed head first into a farmers field in Kent, and he was buried in Brookwood in 1993 with full military honours after spending over 50 years underground in the wreck of his plane.
The Brookwood American Cemetery
There is an American section in the Military Cemetery, with a memorial chapel behind the rows and rows of white crosses. There are about 500 buried there and a further 500 remembered on the walls of the chapel, mostly those who were lost at sea in British waters. There used to be more burials there, but over the years some of the families of the fallen have requested their dead returned to the USA or to the bigger American Cemetery in Cambridge.
The American section is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) who have several overseas cemeteries and who have different guidelines to the CWGC. Each headstone is the same, either a Latin cross or a Star of David, officers and the enlisted are side by side, with the same information about each on the headstone, and a non-sectarian chapel on the site. The graves are made of a brilliant white marble and are lined up in precise rows, creating a dramatic visual effect from wherever you stand. We were told how the ABMC had promised to keep the stones white and the grass green forever, which they have certainly achieved.
One woman buried in the American section is Tula Harkey. She was a chemist who had been working for the State Health Department at Albany when war broke out. She went into Government Service and was head of the Chemistry department at the US Hospital in Plymouth, where she was researching cures for meningitis. Unfortunately she contracted it and died of spinal meningitis in 1918 at the age of 44.
The chapel is small, with the inner walls covered in the names of those who died - mostly in the seas around the UK, such as the USS Tampa which was attacked by a U-Boat in 1917, sinking in the Bristol Channel with all 150 souls on board lost. To see all of their names on the walls, with the same date of death of 26th September 1917, is quite harrowing.
As well as the chapel there is a small Visitors Building you can go in, with displays about General Pershing, the first President of the ABMC, about the cemetery in Brookwood and their other cemeteries across the globe. Its a warm room with a wooden floor, a huge fireplace and comfy chairs and was a welcoming place to spend some time on such a cold day.
When is Brookwood Military Cemetery Open?
8am-7.30pm on weekdays, 9am-7.30pm weekends and bank holidays. The cemetery is closed on Christmas Day and New Year's Day
How much does it cost to visit Brookwood Military Cemetery?
How to get to Brookwood Military Cemetery
Brookwood is 30 miles from London (M3 to Bagshot and then A322). The main entrance to Brookwood Military Cemetery is on the A324 from the village of Pirbright.
Public Transport: There is a direct train service from Waterloo to Brookwood Station from which there is an entrance to the cemetery.
Are there any facilities at Brookwood Military Cemetery?
There are public loos on the site. The village of Pirbright is less than a mile away and has a fabulous pub on the village green, The Cricketers, which serves full restaurant meals and also has a yurt tea room in the garden for snacks.