In his World War I poem The Soldier, Rupert Brooke wrote: “If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” A retired British estate agent and relative of one of 41 men of the British Upper Silesian Force who died in a military campaign in 1921 – while defending a Versailles border demarcation in what is modern-day Poland – is fighting to prove those words are more than verse.
The story of 30 forgotten British soldiers buried in what today is Poland has been buried beneath so many others. To better understand why British soldiers who all fought in the same campaign as part of the British Army of the Rhine received different burial rights, we need to go back near a century, to shortly after the end of WW1 and the Versailles treaty which created new borders in Europe.
The marked graves of British soldiers, who died as part of the British Army of the Rhine's post WW1 campaign, in the Südfriedhof Wiesbaden Municipal Cemetery. Photo: Jim Powrie.
“I naturally thought that there would be a grave somewhere, but instead I discovered the details of the 29 other men who are buried without recognition,” Powrie said.
A total of 41 British soldiers died while serving in the British Upper Silesian Force, part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). The eleven who died before August 31st, 1921, were exhumed, moved to Berlin and buried with proper gravestones at Stahnsdorf Cemetery in Berlin. The other 30 soldiers and two civilians who died in the British military campaign remained buried in what today is Opole, a city in southwest Poland.
As another war broke out, borders were redrawn and history moved on. The British soldiers buried in the Polish city were forgotten. The IWGC paid for wooden crosses and the maintenance of the graves until 1945, but subsequent British authorities have neglected the burial site.
Other British soldiers who served and died in the Upper Rhineland campaign, however, are commemorated with proper gravestones in Cologne and Wiesbaden.
“As far as I can see, these are the only British soldiers who died in (what was then) Germany after World War I with known graves who are not commemorated in any way,” continued Powrie, who has been leading a campaign to pressure the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to erect a memorial, or at least official markers, at the graves of the men.
Using photographic and video evidence, he has now identified exactly where the 30 British soldiers and two civilians who died in the British Upper Silesian Force are buried. Yet the MOD has simply rebuffed his requests to mark them officially, says Powrie. Instead, they advised him to contact the relevant regimental and corps headquarters to raise the necessary funds to erect gravestones.
“There is no official way of forcing the MOD to do anything,” adds Powrie, who has planted 30 small crosses with poppies as a gesture of memorial at the site in Poland.
Now Powrie has launched a campaign with petition site change.org to encourage the MoD to take notice. “I would like to think that these graves could be marked before the centenary of their deaths,” Powrie said.
View Powrie's online campaign here.