The most astonishing experience when entering the Netherlands Field of Honour Menteng Pulo (Menteng Pulo Ereveld) is the silence. Just beyond the gate is the noisy hustle of Jalan Casablanca, but here, among the silent white headstones, the sound of motorcycles and scooters has given way to bird song.
Fields of honour, or war cemeteries, with row upon row of nearly identical headstones – some slight differentiations denoting differences in gender or religion – on a sea of closely trimmed grass, are a fairly recent phenomenon. In view of the fact that mankind has fought wars for millennia, the first officially backed war graves dates back only 100 years. It was in September 1914, during the first months of the First World War, that the commander of the mobile unit of the British Red Cross, Fabian Ware, noticed the lack of any mechanism for marking and recording the graves of those fallen in battle. He created an organization within the Red Cross for that purpose. Six months later, Ware’s work was given official recognition when the unit became part of the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission. Just in time, it could be argued, as by October 1915 the Commission had registered over 31,000 graves of British and Imperial soldiers, and 50,000 by May of the following year.
Maybe it is the brutal effectiveness of the technologies used in modern warfare that uncovered the need for the registration of the vast number of casualties. The losses incurred on Napoleon’s Russia campaign – of the 422,000 starting the campaign, a mere 10,000 returned to France – pale when compared to the totality of the two mondial wars of the 20th century. By the end of WWI in November 1918, a total of more than 9 million soldiers had been killed, while for WWII this figure is 20.9 million – two thirds, or 14.3 million, on the allied side and 6.6 million on the side of the German/Japanese axis.
In 1917 the British Graves Registration Commission was, by Royal Charter, turned into the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Its responsibilities are to commemorate those who have died during the designated war years (WWI and II) while in Commonwealth military service, or of causes attributable to service.
In total the Commission is responsible for 1.7 million graves and memorials throughout the world. The Commission also maintains, under arrangement with the pertinent governments, over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves.
In Indonesia, the CWGC takes care of six burial grounds with 2,605 identified and 657 unidentified graves. One of the cemeteries is located in Menteng Pulo, adjacent to the Netherlands Ereveld. The Netherlands Oorlogsgravenstichting-OGS (War Graves Foundation) has similar duties and responsibilities, but due to The Netherlands’ neutrality during WWI, and its smaller size, on a very much reduced scale.
OGS maintains 50,000 graves worldwide, of which 25,000 are located in Indonesia on seven cemeteries on the island of Java. Originally there were 22 Dutch War Cemeteries spread throughout the archipelago. In the 1960s, however, at the request of the Indonesian government, the graves on the outer islands were exhumed and reburied in the seven cemeteries on Java. These cemeteries are: Ancol and Menteng Pulo in Jakarta; Candi and Kalibanteng in Semarang; Kembang Kuning in Surabaya; Leuwigajah in Cimahi; and Pandu in Bandung. The other 25,000 graves are spread over 50 countries on five continents.
The total number of Dutch casualties during the Second World War was 180,000 of which only 50,000 have found a place in a war grave. The remaining 130,000 died at sea, were namelessly buried in mass graves, cremated in concentration camps, or have been recorded as missing.
The Ancol Field of Honour, containing more than 2,000 graves, is located on or near the place where those participating in the resistance against the Japanese were executed and buried in mass graves without any registration or recording of their names.
Many of the Ancol graves headstones thus carry the inscription GEËXECUTEERD (Executed). In cases where the identities of the executed were known but their remains could not be identified separately, a Collective Grave (VERZAMELGRAF) was erected with their names on the headstone.
Headstones differ according to religion and gender. For Muslims a tapered slab with a conical top divided into three; Christians are buried under a cross, while a cross with rounded ends indicates a female Christian; Jewish headstones are adorned with the Star of David; and Buddhist stones are straight slabs with a rounded top.
Unlike the great majority of public civilian cemeteries where grave sites are leased for a restricted period, the Fields of Honour are for evermore. A plaque on Ereveld Menteng Pulo states:
the land on which the cemetery stands is a gift from the people of Indonesia for the perpetual resting place of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who are honoured here.
This is very fortunate as this restful but sad little corner of Jakarta produces strong emotions. Not only are the relatives of the interred, even third generations, emotionally affected, but casual visitors without any family ties are touched by its sheer expanse and the genuine and solemn atmosphere. Row upon row of white grave markers, with dates of death during a mere four years, and the far too many ‘unknown’ where a name should be, makes one realize how immensely wasteful war is.
OGS has developed an excellent website with a searchable database of the names of deceased and the cemetery of interment. The database is accessible through https://oorlogsgravenstichting.nl. CWGC operates a similar database on http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead.aspx.
In 2015 some 10,000 persons visited one or more of the seven OGS cemeteries.