Tunisia: in search of an uncle’s grave.

George Burns

My middle name was given to me in memory of my father’s youngest brother, George, who had died in Operation Scipio in North Africa during World War 2. I had seen photos of him, handled some of his personal possessions, been intrigued by his soccer trophies, but I knew very little about him. Nobody in the family had ventured into N. Africa in search of his grave, and the 65th anniversary of his death was fast approaching. Time that his memory was restored and celebrated within the family.

So three years ago we took a package deal to a Tunisian beach resort and decided, one day, to take a local train to the town of Sfax where, through my research via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I had located his grave. Although Sfax is on the coast, it is a busy industrial town carefully avoided by all the tourists. This was evident not only by the absence of foreigners, but also by the total absence of women in the streets in this Muslim community. This made Jenny feel very obtrusive and uncomfortable as we made our way to the outskirts of town in search of the war cemetery. But we did eventually find it and, like most war cemeteries in Europe, it was beautifully tended and proved to be a welcome haven in the dirty industrial fringes of the town.

Uncle George had enlisted with the Yorkshire regiment of the 7th Green Howards, and had numbered amongst

Battle of Wadi Akarit

the 300,000 rescued on the Dunkirk beaches. Then in 1942 he was shipped out to N. Africa and took part in the fierce campaigns in the early months of 1943. It was on April 6th 1943, during the battle of Wadi Akarit, that he was killed along with 160 of his regiment comrades.

It was very a moving moment when we found his grave, especially knowing that we were the very first members of the family to pay a visit. We spent time in quiet prayer and contemplation, took photos, and rested quietly in a

Campaign map

corner before embarking on the return journey. My intention back home was to bring some of the family together on the 65th anniversary of Uncle George’sdeath and celebrate his memory.

But to my utter dismay, just before we returned to the UK, an electronic glitch had corrupted the memory card of my camera and I lost all the photos. There was no opportunity to get back to the cemetery to make good the loss, so I had to return home without the important photographic evidence for the rest of the family. My only hope was to contact the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and seek their help. The email I sent them I also copied to the British Embassy in Tunisia, asking them if someone might be able to visit the cemetery and take a new set of photos. To my amazement, I received a personal reply from the Ambassador himself, telling me that he and his wife would be paying an official visit to the cemetery at Sfax, and that his wife had already published a book on the war cemeteries of N. Africa. If I were to send

Uncle George's headstone

them details of my Uncle’s grave, she would be very happy to take a new set of photos and send them by email. And, within a week, this is exactly what happened, so the family celebration could go ahead with the promised photo-slide show.

Uncle George had been the youngest of 15 children, and he died at the age of 24. His commanding officer wrote to my grandparents, telling them “if he was as good a son as he was a soldier, then he was one of the best sons a mother could have….. He was killed whilst shooting with his own rifle. He was in a trench with Capt Coles and was shot in the head and died instantly. I feel his death very much, and since I knew him better than any soldier in my company (George was his batman), I feel that I can enter into your sorrow”. We all know that Commanding Officers were carefully schooled in the art of writing such letters, but his letter struck a note of warm sincerity which grieving parents needed to receive.

About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on October 4, 2011, in Personal history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. This blog has really touched my heart – I do volunteer work at the Veteran’s hospital in Ann Arbor and their stories are heartbreaking. When I read that the British ambassador’s wife took the effort to do this for you I was filled with such hope. It is good to know that so many people are still kind and filled with generous spirits. Kudos to the British embassy in Tunisia! Keep writing – I love reading your posts.

  2. Alke-Brigitte

    Hello Frank,

    Since one week I’m back again from my 2nd Tour on the Via Francigena Calais to Reims. The weather was not so good. I met a lot of nice people. I spent one night by Kate and Martin Pegler in Combles. They are British and they are very busy in the organisation of the British war cemeteries. I visited a lot of cemeteries during my last tour. The most of them where cemeteries from the Commonwealth. I saw all the graves and I read all the ages. 19, 21, 25, 18, 22 ……. Today I read your Blog and I see the face of your uncle and his grave. It is the first time for me to see a face and a grave. You can be sure it impressed me to tears.
    We MUST say every day “ NEVER AGAIN A WAR”.
    All my best greetings to you and your family
    Alke-Brigitte from Maintal Germany

  3. Thanks for those comments Olivia. It is always uplifting when someone steps in to solve a problem, no matter how small it is. But to have the Ambassador and his wife, is something special.

  4. Good to hear from you Alke-Brigitte! I am currently in New York, writing this email from the grand surrounds of the Central Library, and have just come from a visit to the UN Buildings, where the message (loud and clear) is that we have to “wage peace” in our times if peace is to reign supreme.
    So glad to hear that you have been walking the Via Francigena again.

  5. hi frank
    i visit a small island just off the coast off Sfax called Kerkennah every six months and was shocked to hear there was a commonwealth war cemetery so close to Sfax i came across pictures yesterday whilst i was sorting out transfers from sfax thyna airport to the ferry port that takes you to Kerkennah . Im travelling out for a holiday in september and was hoping to pay a visit to the cemetery.After reading your story which has touched me im going to make time to visit thanks for your inspiration .
    Tina Darran

    • Tina, so glad the post has been of some help. I do hope your visit is a great success.

      • Darren payne

        I was amazed to read tour story about the search for your uncles grave in Sfax cemetry,I also have a very similar story.approx 3 years ago whilst researching my family I stumbled upon a long lost uncle who was also killed in may 1943 in north Africa campaign,to my amazement he was also buried in Sfax Tunisia the very same country which my wife,myself and my daughter had holidayed the previous year and were going back again.last year when we returned to Tunisia I had all the details of my great uncle thomas wilsons final resting place.i hired a car and a driver and we set off on our journey from sousse to Sfax,2hours later we approached the cemetry in Sfax,the gardners opened the gates for us ,and my 5year old daughter skipped off to find her great great uncle tommy,it was with tears in my eyes and a huge lump in my throat that we bent down and kissed his grave the first visitors to his grave since he passed away in 1943.after a few hours we returned to sousse very satisfied and very emotional.we are returning to Tunisia this year and again will visit our great great uncle,if I can find your uncles grave I will take photos and send them to you.darren payne Cardiff south Wales uk

      • Darren, that is a very moving story, and thank you sincerely for sharing it. We would be delighted to have further photos of our Uncle George’s grave. It is extraordinary that we should both have close relatives buried in such close proximity in a far distant land.

  6. Derek William Burgess

    Gordon Strowger is my relative here at Sfax War Cemetery, Sfax, Tunisia in Plot: III. D. 10. and very under photographed for headstones here – crying out for some one to help us remember them all. Many are named on this site

  7. Norman Campion

    my father is also buried in Sfax war cemetery . He was a Sargeant in the 40th Royal Tank Regiment ‘A’ Squadren and died at the battle of Wadi Akarit on 6th April 1943 when I was 4 months old..a
    I have visited his grave twice and also walked the area of desert where he was killed.
    So sad, all those young men lost……he was the father I never knew
    Norman Campion

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