Almost 5,000 German and Austrian war dead, 2,143 from the First World War and 2,797 from the Second, lie in peace in Cannock Chase, an area of outstanding natural beauty in rural Staffordshire. Some died trying to kill our parents or grandparents from the skies; others were washed ashore from ships; and some were prisoners of war who never made it home; 95 are ‘unbekannte’ – unknown, or unidentifiable. The burials include crews of four Zeppelin flying ships shot down over Britain, who are all buried together.
It is an odd feeling, meandering through this tranquil setting, looking at the names, reflecting on the people they once were. Old enemies, sure; but there is always another perspective and it’s a stark reminder that war takes the young. Every one of these men would have had grieving parents, wives, girlfriends, drinking buddies – and many years left to them. Then the mischievous devil in me wonders whether the cemetery’s location in the West Midlands, rather than closer to the North Sea ports and easier for German visitors to get to, was intentional – the decision of some civil servant with a grudge, or a warped sense of humour.
The cemetery was established by an agreement between the UK and what the then Federal Republic of Germany in 1959, which provided for a central cemetery in Britain for German nationals who had died here during either world war. The German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) arranged to transfer graves from scattered burial grounds throughout the kingdom and the cemetery was inaugurated on 10th June 1967. Unlike the dark and sombre German cemetery at Langemark in Belgium, which I have visited, Cannock Chase is full of light and, somehow, beautiful – though, as in Belgium, many graves are multi-occupancy. The entrance is by a hall of honour, in the centre of which is an arresting bronze sculpture of a fallen warrior by Hans Wimmer.