Cannock Chase, in Staffordshire, was once a Royal hunting-forest, hence its name. In tudor times, its trees became a source of fuel for the Tudor iron industry.
By the beginning of this century it was a vast, windswept area of rolling heathland, with very few trees or visitors. Most of it was privately-owned by the Earl of Lichfield, whose ancestral home, Shugborough Hall, lies in parkland just on the Northern edge of the Chase.
By December 1914, following Kitchener's stern call for more men to join the colours, it had long been apparent that the country's existing barracks accommodation, with room for 175,000 men, would need to be supplemented by new temporary camps elsewhere. Cannock Chase was well-sited, being almost in the centre of England and within easy reach of major rail-networks, and so work was begun to build two huge army camps there. Completed, their maximum capacity was around 40,000 men and the camps had their own power-stations, water-supply, railways, sewage plants, shops, post offices, and so on, as well as living accommodation for the men, rifle- and bombing-ranges and parade-grounds. After the war, the whole area was turned over to forestry and today, very little remains to show that the camps were there. One might see a strange, worn lump of reinforced concrete near the site of the power-station. Among the pines, the walker might wonder at a strangely flat area, devoid of any vegetation but moss and lichen - the elderly and overgrown floor of a storehouse, perhaps. There is a small military cemetery, containing mostly the graves of ANZAC troops who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Of the camp hospital which stood nearby, there is now no trace.
Cannock Chase as it is now, with its steeply-rising, pine-covered slopes, is very reminiscent of parts of Germany and this is why, in 1964, it was chosen as the site of the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof - the cemetery which now contains the burials of the great majority of German servicemen who died in the UK during both world wars. The cemetery was built by the German War Graves Commission, with grant aid provided by the Federal Republic of Germany. Today, the care of the cemetery is in the hands of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery lies along both sides of small valley, the neatly-kept grass and orderly rows of graves contrasting effectively with the random positions of the native birch-trees which grew there before the cemetery was laid out.
The dark, roughly-hewn granite gravestones are arranged in rectangular plots, the gravestones themselves standing in long beds of heather, with grass walkways between the rows, so that both sides of the stones can be seen. The stones are well spaced out, about a yard apart and each one marks four graves, two on each side. The details given for each man are name, rank, date of birth and date of death.
Although not actually gloomy, the cemetery has a brooding, sombre aspect. The visitor enters through a deliberately dark covered vestibule containing only a low plinth on which lies the black, carved outline of an agonised body covered by a sheet. It serves as a reminder of the pain of war, and every visitor has to pass it. Outside, the colours are muted, and the rows of heathers between the graves have no shrubs or bulbs to break their uniformity. Even the tall, slender cross at the cemetery's centre is at the lowest point of the site, accentuating the inward-looking layout.
The cemetery contains the graves of 2143 servicemen of the First World War and 2786 of the second, concentrated here from all parts of the UK. 5 of the dead from 1914-18 and 90 from 1939-1945 are unknown by name.
To one side of the entrance vestibule are four large slabs, laid flat on the ground, surrounded by a low wall. These are the graves of the crews of the four airships shot down over the UK in 1916 and 1917. Each crew-member is commemorated by name and rank. Here lies the crew of SL 11, an army airship shot down over Hertfordshire by Lieut. William Leefe-Robinson, on 3rd September, 1916. Beside them lies the crew of L32, the first of the three naval airships, shot down over Billericay three weeks later. Then comes Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, the most audacious of all the raiders, buried with the crew of his ship, L31, brought down on 2nd October, 1916 at Potters Bar. Finally, here is the grave of the crew of L48, shot down over Theberton on 17th June, 1917. The small area of the airship graves is not really inside the cemetery proper. From there, the visitor's eyes are drawn away and upwards across the valley, towards the trees, the skyline and the horizon. There is nothing of the downward- and inward-looking aspect of the cemetery proper. I don't know if this was a deliberately-planned memorial to these early fliers, but the difference in visual aspect is very striking.
Cannock chase receives many visitors nowadays, as it is within easy reach of the heavily-populated conurbations of Birmingham and the West Midlands. It is a popular choice for weekend afternoons out and the cemetery receives visitors most Sundays. But is in the Summer months that most German visitors arrive.
Then, the rows of heather ground-cover are broken by fresh flowers here and there. As time passes, however, those able to remember individuals by name grow fewer. Nevertheless, the cemetery will always be there. Visitors will always stop and think and Remembrance will go on.
My Internet friend Harold Pollins has pointed out that the German Cemetery also contains the graves of a small number of civilian Germans who died while interned in the Isle of Man. The camp was at Knockaloe and those who died while interned were buried in the churchyard opposite the camp, at Patrick Church. In the early 1960s the bodies were exhumed and reburied at Cannock. But left behind were the graves of Turkish internees and also the graves of two Jewish internees who were possibly German or Austrian given their germanic-sounding names. Harold has made enquiries, but none of the authorities concerned can explain why these two graves were left on the Isle of Man, or why they remain in the churchyard when there is a Jewish cemetery on the island.
Copyright © Tom Morgan, January, 1997.
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