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 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 area of Upper Silesia was to be ceded from Germany to Poland after WW1 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. However there were some areas where local tensions between Poles and Germans resulted in a great deal of violence and the Inter-Allied Commission was mandated to keep the peace and uphold the results of the vote that decided the new national borders.
That meant British soldiers joined the Upper Silesian Campaign essentially as a peacekeeping force in what today is Germany and Poland.
A number of British soldiers died defending the new border demarcation. Not every corner of a foreign field it seems “is forever England,” however.
A decision was made in the early 1920s that the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) would be responsible for the graves of all those who had died while serving in the armed forces of the British Empire from the outbreak of the Great War until August 31st, 1921. Such persons would be regarded as war dead whereas deaths in service after August 31st, 1921, were peacetime deaths and not the responsibility of the IWGC.
The town of Oppeln, or Opole in Polish, remained in Weimar Germany after the plebiscite. The British force left Upper Silesia in July 1922, and the (British) Army Command in Cologne virtually abandoned the dead in Oppeln.
The tale of two sets of soldiers
Many of the British soldiers who died defending the border demarcation were therefore interred with full honours and gravestones, some in a cemetery in Wiesbaden, some in Cologne, others in Berlin.
British soldiers who died and fought in the Upper Silesian Campaign buried in Cologne Southern Cemetery. Photo: Jim Powrie.
A total of 30 soldiers who died after that cut off date in modern-day Poland, however, were not so lucky. Today they remain buried with unmarked graves in the municipal cemetery in the southern Polish city of Opole, with no gravestones, no headstones, and no official recognition.
In 1929 and 1930 the German authorities wrote to GCHQ of the British Army on the Rhine informing them of the deplorable state of the wooden crosses marking the graves in Opole/Oppeln. But, receiving no reply, took it upon themselves to replace the British wooden crosses with German cast iron crosses, Jim Powrie, a British retired estate agent and a relative of one of the forgotten British soldiers, recounts to The Local.
The British paid the German magistrates office to maintain the plot up to the outbreak of WW2. After WW2, the British failed to re-instate the pre-war arrangements for maintenance and once again these graves were abandoned as they had been in 1930.
"Some of the German authorities seemed to have more respect for the Britishers than the British did themselves," Powrie said.
British pensioner takes fight to the MoD
When Powrie, a British citizen living in Croatia, went to look for the grave of his dads cousin Henry Powrie, a bombardier who had fought in the post World War I British campaign in what is now Poland, he expected to find a grave. After all, the British soldiers who fought in the same campaign in modern-day Germany are buried in well-kept graves in cemeteries across the country.
The marked graves of British soldiers who died in the Upper Silesian Campaign at 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. 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.