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Day 80: Tobruk

Tobruk, Libya 
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Preparing for the last ceremony of the day: the floating of a wreath on the waters of the harbour that the Rats defended for so long.
Michael Palin - SaharaThe Acroma-Knightsbridge Cemetery is a few miles outside Tobruk, in an area of stony ground and occasional fields, in which small birds dart and dive amongst resilient cornstalks. It is looked after, on behalf of the War Graves Commission, by a Libyan, Mohamed Haneish, and his wife. He's a soft-spoken, courteous man with short-cropped grey hair, who calls the dead his 'boys'. Mohamed has worked here for eighteen years and his father tended the graves for thirty years before that. He complains about the salinity of the water and the difficulty he has making things grow, but you wouldn't know it. The place is immaculate. Enclosed within a well-built sandstone wall, with an arched gatehouse entrance, are 3649 graves, every one of identical size, set in neat rows on perfectly tilled ground, interspersed with trees and enough flowers to bring butterflies dancing around the headstones.

I wander down the lines. On closer examination, these apparently identical stones reveal rich diversity: Jewish stars, New Zealand ferns, inscriptions in Afrikaans and Urdu, French, Yugoslav, Polish and Arabic. Mohamed points out two VCs, one of whom, we learn from his inscription, was a chartered accountant, and only one woman, Janie Beryl Wright of the Nursing Reserve. The dedications range from the affecting 'Good Night Little Brother' to the conscience-tweaking 'Fight to build as we have fought to destroy'. The effect of these ranks of white stones, set in the pale red sand, is terribly moving.

The service of remembrance gets underway as the weather deteriorates. It's cool and feels like rain. The vets process in, led by Douglas Waller, wearing a beret and gripping the Rats of Tobruk standard for all he's worth in the strengthening wind. As the trees swing about above the headstones, which seem to stand out more vividly now the sky has darkened, the words of Laurence Binyon's poem, 'For the Fallen', are quietly but firmly recited by the living on behalf of the dead.

'They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.'

Then the piper plays, and, after prayers have been read, thanks given and wreaths laid, Paul, the bugler, sounds the Last Post.

There are, I notice, four Libyans buried in the Commonwealth cemetery at Acroma.
Tobruk, Libya 
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With the Australian memorial rising behind them, Lady Randell comforts relatives of Australian and Maori war dead.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 80
  • Country/sea: Libya
  • Place: Tobruk
  • Book page no: 213

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