In Manchester, in the north of England, there is a corner of an English field that is forever ANZAC. It is a quiet place, peaceful and loved. Tall, gently swaying trees watch over verdant well-tended lawns from which rise, in uniform rows, stone testimonies to individual stories of courage and sacrifice, stories of love and loss.

Here in Southern Cemetery, far from the battlefields upon which they fought, lie the graves of more than 20 Australian and New Zealand servicemen, most casualties of the First World War, along with two of the ANZAC nurses who cared for them. Each year, ordinary Mancunians gather on the Sunday closest to ANZAC Day to pay tribute to their adopted sons and daughters in a ceremony that has been taking place for decades, organised by local members of the Royal British Legion (RBL).

That these brave souls found themselves on our shores is a testament to the steadfast courage and loyalty of Australia and New Zealand. When the Great War broke out, neither hesitated to join the fight. In all some 416,809 Australians and 100,444 New Zealanders joined up during the course of the conflict. Australian casualties were 60,000 killed and 137,000 wounded while News Zealand lost some 16,697 killed and 41,317 wounded.

With millions of men engaged, the scale of the conflict was almost unimaginable. Over the course of the war more than two million British, Commonwealth and Imperial troops were wounded or became sick, presenting an unprecedented challenge to medical services throughout the Empire. With the vast majority of these cases occurring on the Western Front, it quickly became necessary to disperse causalities throughout the British Isles. In August 1914, the 2nd Western General Hospital was established in Manchester.

As the months and years passed the hospital continued to grow, becoming the second largest military medical facility in the country with responsibility for more than 25,000 beds. Specially built ambulance trains ran around the clock conveying hundreds of thousands of casualties to the city where they were greeted by one of the 180 cars and ambulances, all made up of volunteer crews, which conveyed them to one of the dozens of sites across Greater Manchester that comprised the hospital. But the scale of the conflict didn’t just affect future care for the living.

So vast were the numbers killed that it proved impractical to repatriate the bodies of the fallen. Instead, and thanks to the work of people such as Fabian Ware, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was established and a system evolved whereby every solider of the Empire regardless of rank, creed or religion was given a decent burial in cemeteries established close to where they died. There, alongside their comrades, their graves would be cared for and their sacrifice honoured for all time.  

The day of the service sees the weather brighten in Manchester. The sun periodically pierces the clouds and the leaves rustle gently in the light wind. Before the ceremony begins I speak to Paul Griffiths, the Vice-Lord Lieutenant of Greater Manchester. “Every year there seems to be more people attending. It’s touching to see local people remembering the sacrifice of the ANZAC troops buried here, and we will continue to remember them.”

His sentiment is echoed by many I speak to, including Steven Duncan, the standard bearer for the local RBL, who was a soldier in the Royal Fusiliers: “I’ve been the standard bearer for the ANZAC day commemoration before and it’s an honour to pay tribute to these lads. It’s right that we keep their memory alive.”

Meanwhile, PC Kevin Katryk tells me that “it’s important to remember and it’s great that Greater Manchester Police allows us to attend the commemoration”.

Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Evans of the Australian Defence Force adds: “It really is very moving to see so many local people turning out to honour the memory of these ANZAC soldiers. For us, Anzac Day is a very important part of our culture, our national life, and it’s wonderful to see it honoured around the world, especially here in the UK.  And this shared experience, the sacrifice shared by all the Commonwealth countries, is part of what binds us together. Also, I have to say that work of the CWGC and of the groundskeepers here from Manchester Council really should be highly commended.”

The parade master, a local veteran, calls the assembled dignitaries and attendees to order. The service is simple and moving, with readings from serving personnel from the armed forces of New Zealand and Australia as well as local veterans. Prayers for the fallen are said, wreaths are laid and a lady called Katie Tyson-Phillips from the Flixton Brass Band plays the last post and reveille. The young ANZACs who found their final resting place in our city are remembered and honoured.

And in Manchester, in the North of England, a corner of an English field remains forever ANZAC.

By Alfred Searls


Main image: Southern Cemetery. All photos by Alfred Searls.