TUCKED away in a quiet corner on the edge of Oxford, under a row of silver birch trees, is the final resting place of hundreds of servicemen who gave their lives for King and country.
The Botley Cemetery lies hundreds of miles from the Western Front battlefields, where dark green signs point out Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries at almost every junction.
But this secluded spot, in North Hinksey Lane, is the only fully purpose-built CWGC cemetery in Oxfordshire, now the final resting place of 156 men who died in the First World War.
In total, there are 671graves in the cemetery –and the 156 First World War dead were men who returned from the Front, got treatment here at home, but later died from their injuries.
Other CWGC plots are dotted around the county, but here the moving site of the hundreds of white Portland gravestones, overlooked by the towering Cross of Sacrifice, so close to the city, brings home the price our men paid. These are men who, after enduring the horrors of the Front, came home to be treated in hospitals or recover in convalescent homes.
It is largely off the beaten track for visitors, while many people will be flocking in their thousands to the cities of Flanders and Picardy this month as the nation marks the centenary of the war’s outbreak.
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However, that so many of these men are buried here in Oxfordshire is a surprise to many.
- Julie Summers
Julie Summers, an Iffley-based historian who specialises in the CWGC, said many people do not realise many of Britain’s war dead were buried on home soil.
The 53-year-old, of Abberbury Road, said: “I think it is because these men did not die in campaigns that are famous in this country.
“These are men who came back to Britain who had been fighting on the Western Front.
“If you go to the Somme you know where these places are, but it’s not the same in Britain because people think they died over there.
“We are not very good at understanding there are huge numbers who came back to Britain for treatment and of those a fraction died.”
During the war an Oxford Territorial Army unit, the Third Southern General Hospital, was housed in the Oxford Examination Schools, Oxford Town Hall, Cowley Workhouse, and various college buildings.
Town Hall rooms, such as the Assembly Room, were taken up by wounded soldiers who were brought back to the UK to be treated by volunteers.
The Examination Schools, in High Street, saw medical staff fighting to treat wounded men brought back from the Western Front. A portrait of German Kaiser Wilhelm II which had hung there since 1909 was taken down after war broke out.
It had 346 beds, including 94 beds for those with orthopaedic issues and 25 for men suffering from what were described ‘nerve cases’.
Headington’s Wingfield Convalescent Home was a converted military hospital with 20 beds. Half-way through the war in 1916, wooden huts were built to house another 75 beds.
The Oxford Orthopaedic Hospital was also set up in huts in the grounds and eventually became today’s Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre.
But many of the men treated on home soil did not make it and Botley Cemetery offered a place to bury the dead.
Families could also ask for their relatives who died in the UK to be buried there. This was different to Britain’s non-repatriation policy for those killed on the continent, where soldiers were buried nearest to where they fell.
Ms Summers said the War Office bought the land in Botley in about 1916 as the need grew to bury the dead.
After the war Edward Maufe, a St John’s College graduate and Royal Garrison Artillery Veteran, designed the cemetery’s architecture.
Ms Summers said: “It’s very beautiful and incredibly peaceful.
“I would encourage people to go and have a look at the cemetery, it’s the only one designed by Edward Maufe and it would give an idea of the enormous number of people who fought for Britain which is really interesting. I have been quite regularly and every time I drive past I quickly say ‘salute boys’.”
'Chances are there is a piece of history on your doorstep'
DOTTED across the UK are the graves of 170,000 servicemen in 12,800 Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) cemeteries – more than in France and Belgium combined.
Yet this fact is scarcely known outside the niche world of pilgrims and history aficionados.
But for the last year the CWGC has been raising awareness of cemeteries like the one in Botley, to help communities understand the role they played in the First World War.
Spokesman Peter Francis said: “The chances are that there is a piece of First World War history on your doorstep, but because people are not aware of them people do not visit them – we think that is not quite right.
“When people think of our work they think of big military cemeteries in France and Belgium because that’s where the fighting took place.
“But they are surprised to find there are 170,000 war graves in the UK in almost 13,000 cemeteries.”
During the First World War Commonwealth war dead were buried as close to where they fell as possible. The policy of repatriation was dismissed.
Beyond practical reasons like cost and logistics, there was the idea of ‘equality in death’ regardless of rank or social standing.
But those who died in Britain could be buried in a location of their family’s choice.
Mr Francis said: “So the chances are these are people from your community and are buried or commemorated in your community.
“It can say a huge amount about that community’s role in the war, the impact the war had on the home front.
“It also puts a human face to the name on the grave and what this person’s impact on the war was.”
For every large purpose-built cemetery like Botley there are dozens more civil cemeteries which contain a handful of graves.
Mr Francis said: “I think there is not the same visibility because the war dead are buried in the church and civil burial site rather than commission cemeteries.
“But these are focal points of commemoration and the last physical remnants of that conflict, and not everybody can get to France and Belgium.
“For us it does not matter about how they died, whether it was in training or on the Western Front.”
- The immaculate Botley cemetery
NOT only is Botley Cemetery the largest CWGC site in Oxfordshire, but it is the 19th largest of the CWGC’s 12,800 UK cemeteries.
North Hinksey parish councillor Eric Batts said: “It’s quite a poignant place to be because when you look at their ages you realise how young some were.
- Eric Batts
“There are some who died a few days before the war ended, which really brings it home to you the sacrifices that they made.
“There’s a sign for the cemetery on the A34 but most people won’t know what it means.”
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