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  Opole Cemetery

 

Poland

 

Text and pictures courtesy of Jim Powrie

 

Opole Cemetery 1930

Opole Cemetery 2015

 

In a now derelict cemetery in Opole, a town in Upper Silesia situated in southern Poland, the remains of 30 British soldiers who died whilst on active duty during the post WW1 period 1921 and 1922 languish. There is no memorial; there are no headstones, and even the exact location of the graves within the boundaries of the cemetery, is in doubt. What Polish cemetery records that remained, were largely lost during the catastrophic flooding of the town in 1997 when the cemetery was 4 meters below the waters of the River Oder, but the cemetery had been in a state of decay long before that. A portion of it had been lost when a road was built in 1935 linking a new bridge over the Oder to the town centre, and we also have to take into account that fact that this area has changed hands several times in the recent past, and in particular, under the post-WW2 Communist government, most things ‘western’, including British graves, were looked upon as being ‘bourgeois’ and were neglected. All the German graves in the cemetery were vandalised and destroyed. The cemetery was officially closed in 1968.

British military records relating to this period are scant, compared with those relating to WW1, but what we do know is that post-WW1, there was a lot of buck-passing within the military establishment when the matter of responsibility for the maintenance of the graves of these men was raised. Files from The National Archives show an almost complete lack of respect and compassion (with the exception of one letter), for these men who served their nation with honour, and, through no fault of their own, remain forgotten heroes.

Originally, there were 41 British military burials in the cemetery, and here’s the rub: World War 1 was officially deemed to have ended on 31 August 1921, and all deaths after that date fell without the remit and responsibility of the Imperial War Graves Commission. In February 1925, the remains of the eleven men who had died before the cut-off date, were exhumed and re-interred in the IWGC cemetery in Stahnsdorf, South-Western Berlin. They are all honoured in an immaculately maintained cemetery with headstones and all appear in The Roll of Honour of British Fallen.

Our 30 remaining ‘Upper-Silesian’ men have been, until now, largely forgotten, certainly by the British Establishment.

We have to ask ourselves, ‘why were our men in Upper-Silesia in 1921 and 1922 in the first place?’ Briefly, the answer to this is that within the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles that was signed in 1919, Germany was stripped of about 25,000 square miles (65,000 km2) of territory and nearly 7,000,000 people. In Eastern Europe, Germany had to recognize the independence of Poland and renounce "all rights and title over the territory". Portions of the province of Upper Silesia that was ethnically divided between peoples of Polish and Germanic descent, were to be ceded directly to Poland, with the future of the rest of the province to be decided by plebiscite. The border would be fixed with regard to the vote and to the geographical and economic conditions of each locality.

The Inter-Allied Commission for Upper Silesia was formed in 1920 comprising of representatives from France, Britain and Italy to administer the plebiscite that was to take place in 1921, and the newly created borders that would result from the outcome of the vote. A military force was assembled, and the boots on the ground, were supplied primarily, by the French, with troops from the British Rhine Army and Italian forces arriving in greater numbers in 1921. Inter-ethnic tensions by this time were high within the population, resulting in a great deal of unrest and violence between the people. There was also some mistrust and antagonism shown towards some sections of the military personnel of the Inter-Allied Commission who were largely employed as a ‘peace keeping’ force. An excellent and detailed account of the formation and activities of the Inter-Allied Commission for Upper Silesia (in particular the British effort) can be read in “The British Upper Silesia Force [‘UpSi’ Force]: May 1921 – July 1922.”, a paper written by Alun M. Thomas of the University of Birmingham, Centre for World War 1 Studies.

According to British records, none of the deaths that occurred were ‘on the battlefield’. They were all as a result of disease, illness, suicide, accident and murder. They all relate though, to the conditions in which the men found themselves, i.e. serving His Britannic Majesty’s Government on Foreign Service in a volatile and dangerous theatre, where their primary objective was one of maintaining peace, law and order under extremely difficult circumstances.




The men, remembered as ‘heroes’, who died in Upper Silesia and who received the ‘honour’ of being re-interred in the CWGC cemetery in Stahndsdorf simply by dying prior to 31 August 1921 were:


Pte. William PATERSON, 2746563 2nd Bn. The Black Watch, died 3 June 1921


Driver O. HANSON, 1020332 62nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery, died 7 June 1921


Cpl/Acting Sgt. Albert John Marriott SELVESTER, 2744684 2nd Bn. The Black Watch died 9 June 1921


Signaller Frank Joshua WATKINS, 2306972 Royal Corps of Signals died 1 July 1921


Pte. J. STEWART, M/16943 585th Motor Transport Coy. R.A.M.C. died 9 July 1921


Sgt. John Thomas WAKNELL, 1st Bn. Durham Light Infantry died 15 July 1921


Pte. F. WALSH, 7111209, 1st Bn. Royal Irish Regiment died 26 July 1921


Spr. Frederick J. MILLS, 1849188, Railway Transportation Establishment R.E., died 19 August 1921


Pte. Lewis SAWYER, 4435237, 1st Bn. Durham Light Infantry, died 20 August 1921


Signaller Harold AYLES, 2311321, Royal Corps of Signals, died 23 August 1921


Actg. Sgt Frederick RECK, 7868168 Tank Corps., died 23 August 1921



Two of the above, Selvester & Waknell, were killed during incidents involving French troops; Selvester trying to separate a French officer and a German civilian, both of whom had drawn pistols, and Waknell was shot in a scuffle in a café whilst searching for a hidden arms cache. Both were awarded the Croix de Guerre posthumously by the French Commander, General Le Rond. The rest died variously including drowning in the Oder, an accidental gunshot, a road traffic accident, a suicide and, one assumes, illness and disease.

 



After the removal of the remains of the 11 men to Berlin, a state of at best, procrastination, or at worst downright antipathy towards the fate of the remaining 30 servicemen seems to have ensued. The remaining graves were identified by simple wooden crosses bearing names, numbers, rank, regiment and dates of death. On 14th November 1929, Mr R.J.G. Paterson of the War Office wrote to Lord Arthur Browne, Principal Assistant Secretary at the IWGC requesting that an inspection should be made of the Oppeln cemetery. It was not until 3 August 1930, almost nine months later, that this inspection was undertaken by Mr C.A. Batty, the Foreman Gardener at the Berlin SW cemetery. His report was damning:


“Aspect of our Cemetery is very bad, giving a very neglected appearance and an absence of bloom. Graves are heaped up (re snapshot) resembling heaps of weeds. In a few places, ivy is planted. Crosses in some places need repairing, on several, the names and particulars are completely obliterated”
Soon after the inspection by Mr Batty, in a letter from the Town Council to Mr H.E. Pomeroy the Acting British Consul in Berlin dated 18 August, 1930, the real situation can be seen. It read:


“During the occupation of Upper Silesia by the Inter-Allied Powers, 30 British soldiers were buried in the local communal cemetery in Breslauer Strasse (War Graves Division). The General Headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine paid RM 150:- annually towards the maintenance of these graves.
According to your letter November 26th, 1929 – 133/29 – you expressed your willingness to continue these payments.
The graves of these soldiers were at the time provided with common wooden crosses which have now become useless under the influence of the weather. We have been in correspondence with the G.H.Q., B.A.O.R. respecting replacement of these crosses, their last communication under date and reference of July 1st, 1929, No. W.R.B.A.R . 22559/C.E. being as follows:-


“We will communicate with you as soon as a decision has been received from England respecting replacement of the wooden crosses”.
Since the above communication, a further year has elapsed during which time the crosses have deteriorated so much that their replacement can no longer be postponed. We intend, therefore, to provide these graves with cast-iron crosses, possibly in the course of the year. For this reason we require exact details regarding the dead soldiers in respect of Christian and surnames, rank, regiment and date of decease. We enclose herewith a copy of an extract from the register of our cemetery authorities and beg to request that this may be corrected, or that we may be furnished with a new list in which these corrections are embodied”.

The offer by the Oppeln Council to erect iron crosses was gladly, if not gleefully accepted by the Army as it was going to be at minimum cost against its coffers, but arguments as to which department should bear the cost of on-going maintenance were still going on as late as 29 September 1931 as seen in a memo from Brigadier A.C. Temperley, Director of Military Operations & Intelligence which reads:

“I suggest that the cost of maintenance of these graves should continue to be borne by Army Funds, as a matter of policy, for the following reasons:-
1. On principal, it seems scandalous that the graves of British soldiers, who, owing to the exigencies of the service, cannot be buried in ordinary military cemeteries, should be allowed to fall into disrepair in cases where facilities for their maintenance exists.


2. In this particular case:-


a) The graves are in a foreign civilian cemetery, where their condition, if neglected, will contrast unfavourably with their surroundings and bring discredit on the whole British nation.


b) Last year the Town Council of Oppeln, after trying in vain for a long time to induce the War Office to renew the rapidly rotting wooden crosses over these graves, offered itself to replace them with cast-iron crosses, and the Army Council gladly accepted this offer (Flags “A” and “B” in War Office Jacket No. 0154/7159). It would hardly be polite, (if not quite impolitic) to refuse now to maintain the graves.


c) The distinction between the 30 dead still in Oppeln, and the 11 who were removed by the War Graves Commission to Berlin, seems a purely arbitrary and ridiculous one. All 41 were engaged on the same foreign service; none of them were battle casualties; yet because the war is reputed to have continued until 31st August 1921, 11 of them are honoured as killed in action, while 30 (whose only fault was that they served longer before dying!) are to be neglected with dishonour.

 


3. Possibly the cost should be more properly borne by some other Ministry or Department of State; but in any case it seems that the maintenance of these graves is a national obligation, and, if no one else is prepared to accept it, I think it should be undertaken by the War Office, rather than by no one at all”.

 

The derelict chapel located in the cemetery



And so, who are the 30 men who remain in Opole? What are their stories? How did they die? Do their descendants or family members even know where they are? We know the answer to the first question, and we have some details relating to the others, and so here they are, listed in chronological date of death:



Pte. Frank PORTER, 6192593, 3rd Bn. Middlesex Regiment died 15th September 1921


Pte. Frederick Arthur MARSH, 6192598, 3rd Bn. Middlesex Regiment died 21st September 1921


Signaller Edward Albert IGGLESDEN, 2308631, Royal Signal Corps died 23rd October 1921


Lieut. Harold WYNN, 1st Bn. Durham Light Infantry died 26th September 1921


L/Cpl. Alfred Edward EMONS, 7178715, 2nd Bn. Leinster Regiment, died 26th November 1921


Farrier/Staff Sgt. Harry SMITH, 536333, 14th Hussars died 2nd December 1921


Pte. Patrick BARRY, 7178489, 2nd Bn. Leinster Regiment died 12th December 1921


L/Cpl. Alfred Edward EVANS, 4437204, 1st Bn. Durham Light Infantry died 14th December 1921


Pte. Martin Francis FRANKLIN, 7110764, 1st Bn. Royal Irish Regiment died 15th December 1921


Pte./Actg. Cpl. Frank Thomas DAVIES, S/8651, Royal Army Service Corps died 18th December 1921


Bmbr. Henry POWRIE M.M., 1026458, 62nd Battery Royal Field Artillery died 21st December 1921


Pte. Nathanial MURDAGH, 6973193, 2nd Bn. Royal Inniskillin Fusiliers died 27th December 1921

 

Pte. John MURRAY, 2744806, 2nd Bn. The Black Watch died 6th January 1922


Pte. William George RAFFAN, 4435084, 1st Bn. Durham Light Infantry died 17th January 1922


Pte. Michael FORAN, 7111257, 1st Bn. Royal Irish Regiment died 11th February 1922


Pte. James KEATING, 7110968, 1st Bn. Royal Irish Regiment died 11th February 1922


Pte. Martin Joseph MURPHY, 7110952, 1st Bn. Royal Irish Regiment died 11th February 1922


Pte. Patrick SHALLY, 7109064, 1st Bn. Royal Irish Regiment died 11th February 1922


C.Sgt. Maj. Harry Fraser JEBSON, 6188423, 3rd Bn. Middlesex Regiment died 21st February 1922


Pte. James LIGHT, 7178629, 2nd Bn. Leinster Regiment died 19th March 1922


L/Cpl. Andrew KELLY, 6973846, 2ND Bn. Royal Inniskillin Fusiliers died 24th March 1922


Pte. John POWER, 3377056, 2nd Bn. Connaught Rangers died 2nd April 1922


Pte. Alfred Allen SEXTON, 6190250, 3rd Bn. Middlesex Regiment died 7th April 1922


Pte. Digory SALTERN, 5431013, 2nd Bn. Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry died 17 April 1922


Sapper Frederick George CREETH, 1854714, Royal Engineers died 25 April 1922


Actg. Sgt. Joseph William Goulding STORER, 6451065, Royal Fusiliers died 5th May 1922


Farrier/Cpl. Charles THOMAS, 536331, 14th Hussars died 6th May 1922


Pte. Reginald GRANT, 5176415, 1st Bn. Gloucester Regiment died 17th June 1922


Sapper James HUNTLEY, 1849413, Royal Engineers died 4th July 1922


Pte. Arthur William FARRELL, M/19911, Royal Army Service Corps died 6th July 1922.

 

 

The headstone in the large photo is over the grave of Sgt Joseph Storer, and the one in the background along with the private memorial is over the grave of Pte Nathanial Murdagh of the 2nd Inniskillen Fusiliers.
 



Like the 11 who were re-interred in Berlin, the cause of death of our 30 men remaining is varied. The 4 Irishmen; Foran, Keating, Murphy and Shally who died on 11th February 1922 were all shot by a deranged colleague who ran amok in the mess hall; Sgt. Storer was an intelligence officer who was murdered by Polish nationalists (who were caught and put on trial); Pte. Farrell was killed while trying to separate a French soldier and a German who were fighting; Bmbr. Powrie who had been awarded the Military Medal at Gallipoli and had been wounded during WW1 committed suicide, probably as a result of what we now know as PTSD. As for the others, all we know is that they are dead, and as rather poignantly, but prophetically predicted by Brigadier Temperley in 1929.



NEGLECTED WITH DISHONOUR


 

Probable burial site of British looking south

The burial site of British with Wroclawska St. in the background

 

The author would be delighted to receive any feedback with regards to the above article including any information relating to the "forgotten" soldiers

You can contact Jim Powrie by clicking here

 

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