I have blogged extensively about Christian Cemeteries in Kolkata as well as covered a lot of topic on First World War and Second World War so it is not uncommon for me to receive emails from the families of WWI and WWII veterans thanking me for my effort. Usually, as a courtesy, I send them a thank you email and sometimes send them a message over Facebook. One such incident was something, which made me look at the whole concept of war from a different point of view.
Someone emailed me after reading my blog where he might have found his grandfather’s memorial headstone at Bhowanipore Cemetery. He was killed during WWII and had died young. Even his son did not remember his face thus; it was his grandson who managed to trace him through my blog. All this happened last year and I had almost forgotten about it.
Forwarding it to 2018 one fine November morning I see a message from someone on my Facebook Messenger, it was that very same person who had tracked his grandfather from my blog. It was a day before Armistice Day or some might refer to it as Remembrance Sunday. This year it was special since it was the centenary year marking the end of Great War or as some refer to it as the First World War. He wanted me to place a letter on his grave a letter from a grandson to a grandfather whom he had never seen. Along with the letter, there was a group photo of the RAF Squadron deployed in the city and amongst them was his grandfather.
Traditionally this day which usually is the closest to 11th of November is observed as the Remembrance Sunday across the world. The reason is that the on the 11th day of the 11th month of November at 11 AM the armistice was signed which formally ended the First World War. In the United States, this day is referred to as the Veterans Day and some call it “Poppy Day”.
Don’t be surprised to see people wearing a Poppy flower brooch which has become a symbol of sorts for this day sometimes referred to as the Remembrance Poppy. This was from the reference to the famous poem “In Flanders Field”.
This particular Sunday was a tight schedule affair for me, the day started early at around five in the morning. I had to cover a heritage walk in the morning, which I was a part as an organizer thus could not be late. The walk started at around eight in the morning and lasted around two and a half hours. I took a taxi and quickly headed towards the Cenotaph on Red Road as I knew some event was planned out there and it was important that I reach before 11 AM.
Luckily being a Sunday the roads were less congested thus managed to reach around ten minutes before 11 AM. The event at Cenotaph was about to start and was full of dignitaries as well as representatives from various media.
The Event at Cenotaph
Traditionally in Kolkata, this is the official memorial for WWI and WWII. Even before the end of WWII, this Cenotaph was constructed by the British in India. The Cenotaph had brass plates with names which were later removed in the year 1959 and reinstalled at St. Johns Church, Kolkata.
The Cenotaph which is dedicated to the “Glorious Dead” for long has been the main commemoration ground on Remembrance Day.
The event started by a brief word from British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata followed by a representative from the Indian Army.
What people almost forget is that the First World War had nearly 1.4 million servicemen from India since then India was a part of the British Empire. The Indian contingent had nearly 70,000 fatalities thus this is equally important to us and not just the countries who directly fought during the Great War. Indian forces are amongst the very few forces who had fought at all the fronts during that war.
The event was then followed by the sounding of the bugle, which played “The Last Post” followed by a minute of silence and then “The Rouse”.
It was then time for the official wreath-laying ceremony by the different dignitaries accompanied by the bagpiper band playing in the background.
The Event at Bhowanipore Cemetery
Being the centenary year this year the memorial service was extended to Bhowanipore Cemetery also. It is in this cemetery that you can find the rows and rows of headstone having the name of victims from the First World War and Second World War. This is the official Commonwealth War Cemetery in Kolkata. However, there are also some buried in the Lower Circular Road Cemetery also. Out here in Bhowanipore Cemetery, it’s having a proper demarcated section dedicated to the glorious dead.
I have been to around three-commonwealth war cemetery, almost all of them have some similar features, and one that stands common is the large concrete cross. This year marking the centenary year the commemoration was set around the cross. Dignitaries from the army, navy, air force and police were amongst the people who paid respect by laying flower wreaths. Apart from them were dignitaries from the various consulates based out of Kolkata.
This event was held right after the commemoration at the Cenotaph and was perfect for me as I could attend the event at Bhowanipore Cemetery and complete the task that I had been given that is to put the letter next to the headstone.
As I put the letter along with the photograph I felt a lump in my throat thinking about the son who never had a father growing up, a grandson who only had heard that he had a grandfather but never could feel the love around his arms.
The event at the cemetery was a shorter one having lesser guests thus I quickly headed back home for the third and the final event of the day, which was at St. John’s Church.
Remembrance Sunday – St. John’s Church
I had previously covered the annual Remembrance Sunday Church Service at St. John’s Church in my blog thus if you want to know the details then please do visit the link.
It’s a tradition to have this Remembrance Church Service in this church and this is also the place where you can find the brass plates from the Cenotaph out here on the wall.
The church service lasts a little more than an hour. The service starts with the group of pastors and choir marching from the back toward the altar. The service included a performance from school students, school teachers and from different organizations within the church. In between the service, the representatives from the armed forces, churches, school, churches, and other institutions paid their homage to the fallen by laying wreaths in front of the brass plates which were once installed at the Cenotaph.
This was followed by the sounding of the bugle playing the “Last Post” followed with a minutes silence and then playing “The Rouse”. The service resumed by reading from the Bible and then word from the pastor.
As a tradition after the last hymn, the service formally ended with the National Anthem playing on the Pipe Organ. This is the only time and only service when the Indian National Anthem is played inside the church during a full service. The feeling when you hear the vibrations in the wall when the national anthem is played is beyond words.
Bengali War Memorial
Calcutta being Calcutta has another secret, which very few know about. Right at the Eastern gate of College Square is a small memorial, which has few marble plaques dedicated to the Fifty Two Bengali Soldiers who had died during the First World War. People often confuse this memorial with that of a memorial to Bengal Regiment which actually is not and specifically dedicated to the Bengali soldiers who had died participating in the Great War.
This year being the centenary year had a special ceremony where the representative from the local municipal and state government body paid their respect by laying flower to the memorial. A bigger and better memorial for these soldiers has also been planned.