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Professor Tim Grady
University of Chester
Research Fellowship

‘The unwelcome gravediggers’: war, memory and British–German relations

Focusing on the history of the enemy dead, Tim Grady argues that their graves facilitated close contact between friend and foe on a local level; revealing a shared history of wartime loss, grief and humanitarianism

Cemetery including burial mound.
German Graves in Park Hall Cemetery, Shropshire, 1952. Reference: CWGC Archive, CWGC/9/1/1/2544_001.

In 1962, members of the West German war graves commission arrived in the sleepy Yorkshire village of Dishforth on a mission. They planned to exhume the bodies of two Luftwaffe airmen killed in the Second World War and to rebury them in a new German military cemetery on Cannock Chase. However, they had barely started digging when the protests started. The parish council tried to stop the exhumations, while the local press complained about the ‘unwelcome gravediggers’. All efforts were in vain and the German dead from Dishforth eventually joined another 5,000 from the two world wars on Cannock Chase, all of whom had been dug up and moved from across Britain.

The contested memory of the world wars has generally been seen as a source of tensions in the British–German relationship. Yet, in this small village, the presence of the enemy dead did more to unite than to divide. The response in Dishforth was far from unique. In this project, I explore how local people often tended the enemy graves, held remembrance services for the dead and even provided comfort for the relatives. A very similar process occurred in Germany, where thousands of British graves also lay scattered in local churchyards and cemeteries. It was in these towns and villages, whether Dishforth or Oswestry in Britain or Bayreuth and Celle in Germany, where post-war reconciliation efforts between the former foes first took place. 

Creating national cemeteries, though, always took precedence over the wishes of local custodians or in some cases even of the bereaved. The British moved all their dead to new central cemeteries in the 1920s and late 1940s, while the West Germans belatedly followed suit in 1967, with the dedication of the Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery. Once exhumed, any presence of the enemy was quickly removed, graves were filled, and headstones and memorials broken down. It was not just the physical bodies that vanished, but with them the existing close, organic relationship between British and German communities. At a time of strained British–German relations, which often still play out in the shadow of the world wars, it is crucial to highlight a shared history of suffering, loss and mutual support.

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