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The Cross of Sacrifice instantly identifies a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. Beautifully tended, as they all are, the information panel tells you that this one contains 383 burials from the First World War, 97 Commonwealth – mainly New Zealanders – and 286 Germans. There are also three burials from the Second World War.
Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, work began on the construction of two enormous military training camps deep in the ancient hunting forest of Cannock Chase, in rural Staffordshire. Built at Brocton and Rugeley, they accommodated 40,000 troops. The first recruits arrived early in 1915 and, by the time the Armistice was declared at 11 o’clock on Monday 11th November 1918, about half a million men had passed through their gates.
Troops sang, as they went up the line to the front in 1917,
We’re all enjoying it hugely.
To and fro we gaily go,
We’re always on the tramp.
But if you think that Cannock Chase
Is a lively and attractive place,
You’ll be rugeley awakened
When you come to Rugeley Camp!”*
They are silent now; little trace of the men or their camps remain, though experienced eyes can apparently pick out the shapes of huts and trench systems amongst the pine trees and heather. One of the huts survived until 2006 as a parish hall and has been relocated and restored at the Cannock Chase Visitor Centre. A particular object of archaeological excavation in 2013 was a scale model of the Battle of Messines, the size of a tennis court, built by German prisoners of war at gunpoint; the model has subsequently been reburied.
The Germans’ guards were men of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, which was headquartered in Cannock Chase. Which brings us back to the cemetery, a very visible reminder of the camps and which started as a burial ground for the 1000-bed camp hospital. Whilst all of those that rest here died because of war – most of them hundreds or thousands of miles from home – the majority did not die of the war, but from the influenza epidemic of 1918-19.
Just up the lane is the larger German War Cemetery. As a footnote, I understand the hospital closed in 1924 but went on to become the mining village of Brindley Heath until it was cleared in the 1950s.
*Quoted by Lyn MacDonald in “They Called It Passchendaele”.