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With an insanely packed schedule, covering the whole of Asia Fashion Exchange (Singapore Fashion Festival, Asia Fashion Summit and the Blueprint fashion trade fair), it was hard to carve out time to see un air-conditioned Singapore, but I was determined.

On the Monday afternoon I took the MRT out to Kranji in the north of the island to visit the Commonwealth War Memorial. “Dedicated to the men and women from United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Malaya, the Netherlands and New Zealand who died defending Singapore and Malaya against the invading Japanese forces during World War II, it comprises the War Graves, the Memorial Walls, the State Cemetery, and the Military Graves.” (Wiki).

In February of 1942 Singapore was finally invaded by the Japanese and, after eight days of heavy fighting, often with hand to hand, eventually fell, in what remains the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history, and many of the headstones here mark the graves of those who died defending the island. There are memorials here too to the hundreds of staff and patients who were bayoneted by the invading troops in the Alexandra Hospital massacre during the invasion, and to the local people who died trying to defend their island.

There’s a narrow entrance road winding up from the highway, and then you see it through the grey heat haze. The tall obelisk rises through the mist first, but nothing prepares you for the sight of the seemingly endless grey headstones stretching into to the distance nor the submarine shape of the memorial cresting the hill ahead.

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Every time you walk to the top of a rise and think you have seen everything, another swathe of headstones appear, as far as the eye can see.

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And, in the distance, Singapore appears in the heat haze, reminding you of what the men & women buried here died to protect.

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In all, the War Cemetery is the final resting place for 4,458 allied servicemen in marked graves, but upon the Memorial’s walls are inscribed over 24,000 names of allied servicemen & women whose bodies were never found. (Wiki). Everyone is remembered here from the cooks and Indian Army Postal Workers to the most honoured. The lists of names are relentless; they go on and on and on. Every part of the walls is covered with the names of the dead. It is beyond heartbreaking. These men and women from the furthest-flung parts of India, from the cities of Australia, from every part of the Commonwealth, who all gave their lives for our todays.

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“They died for all free men.”

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The Rev H Smith, a chaplain to the Army, aged just 29, who died during the fall of Singapore.

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The entire trip took about four hours. (Take a sunhat and sun cream.) It’s either direct or one change on the MRT, depending on your starting point, for a journey of about 35 minutes, plus a bus ride of just two stops, or a 15 minute walk.

When you get to Kranji MRT, ask for the little map at the ticket booth, and make sure you have coins for the bus fare, as they don’t take notes in the bus machines. With hindsight, I would probably have taken a cab out there  from my hotel, and ordered one to pick me up again – cabs are cheap on the island, and if you are a group of 2-4 people it’s definitely worthwhile.

Most of all take a very large packet of tissues. I cried and cried and cried. And then I stood at the memorial on the top of the hill, recited Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen, and went home.

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8 comments

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I cried reading your post. I grew up in Singapore in the 1970s and heard stories of the invasion. Nothing has quite prepared me for the visual of all the headstones and names, however. Thank you for showing a side of Singapore – beautiful and moving – we don’t see often.

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@OT: I had visited once before, some seven years ago, and I am so glad that I made the effort to go again. We should never forget a place’s history.

In the 70s it must have been still fresh in the memories of those who were there then. It is very hard to imagine the horrors of living in Singapore between 1942 & 1945.

LLGxx

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Lest we forget…

Thanks for posting that, Sasha.

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My (maternal) great-uncle is buried there. A few years ago, my father went there on business and visited my great-uncle’s grave, the first of our family to be able to get there. He took a video for my grandmother and brought back the teeniest pinch of soil, in a plastic bag, hidden in his trainer in his suitcase for my grandmother. My great-uncle was her beloved older brother who died so young (19?) but they received no news back home. My great-grandfather put an advert in the Times for any news of him when the war ended and he didn’t come home. One day they received news, one of his fellow officers/soldiers had seen the advert in his fish and chip paper and had made contact. And then, 50 years later, my Dad made it to his grave.

(sorry for the long comment, your post made me well up, with tears and memories).

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@Rachel: Rachel – thank you so very, very much for sharing your story. As you walk through the headstones there, every grave is a story. Many have inscriptions from family or quotations from the Bible, and it rams home the point that every plot is someone’s son, father, brother, uncle, nephew…

Love, LLGxx

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It’s such a moving place to visit. My whole family came out to see me in Singapore at Christmas, and we went here to pay our respects to those who ‘died to free all men’.
My grandfather was a prisoner of war at Changi and later moved to Death Railway. As such, seeing the names on the headstones of those from his regiment (Bedfordshire & Herts) brought back to us how lucky we were to have him return to us after nearly 4 years of imprisonment.

If you have never been, on your next visit to Singapore you should also visit the Changi War museum, where the stories of those POW’s are told.

Lest we forget.
Lisa x

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My Brother died in Singapore whilst serving on H.M.S. BULWARK in 1962, in those days the forces personnel were buried where they died. I was fortunate to visit his grave in 2005 whilst on my way to Australia to visit family.I do agree that you should hire a return taxi as we did from the hotel and take an umbrella as a sun shade. As he did’nt die in action, he was buried in the civilian part along side the families of sevring personel but I was grateful for the help from the navy and commonwealth graves commision in finding where his grave was before we left the U.K. It is a very moving experience to see all those graves and we must have spent about two hours there on our return visit two years later. It is something that remains with you forever. We shall visit again in January next year and it will be our last visit as age is getting the better of us but part of our hearts will be there forever.god bless them all. Josie xx

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@Josie: Dear Josie

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, and for sharing your moving story. Kranji is the most extraordinary place, and I wish that more people visited there, for we must never forget what has gone before.

With best wishes, Sasha

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