A moving ceremony in Poland marked the successful conclusion of a scheme to turn a run-down cemetery into one fit to be the final resting place of five North East First World War soldiers.
For years the plot in Lidzbark Warminski had fallen into disrepair despite the best efforts of locals there.
But with the help of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it has now been transformed and an official re-dedication ceremony has been staged.
The North East men buried there are Alex Anderson from Wolsingham, County Durham; John Ernest Armstrong of Newcastle; William Embleton of Bedlington, Northumberland; William Jobson from Hebburn Colliery, South Tyneside and Arthur Ernest Hobson from Elswick, Newcastle, who all died in 1918.
They were among 39 other British soldiers belonging to regiments including the Durham Light Infantry, the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Royal Engineers, who died at what was then Heilsberg Prisoner of War camp in eastern Germany. After the war the region was ceded to Poland and became Lidzbark Warminski.
All were buried in a local cemetery which was marked with a traditional Cross of Sacrifice and headstones by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).
But from the 1960s, the site began to deteriorate, despite the efforts of some locals, and the commission stepped in.
After gaining permission to access the site, a team from the CWGC’s Belgian operation travelled to Poland to work on the cemetery in March, completing the work this month.
Ex-pat Trevor Hill, a teacher working in Poland who has family in Tynemouth, has witnessed the transformation.
“Gravestones had been smashed, for whatever reason,” he said. “The ground was overgrown. It was in a hell of a mess. I also spoke with a Polish chap, who told me he and his family had started cleaning the place up in 1991. He said it was a total jungle and you couldn’t even tell where the graves were.”
Now it is a home fit for heroes and the re-dedication ceremony, Trevor said, did the men proud.
“I had thought it would just be a small occasion, with a few local dignitaries but as I drove into town, I saw young Scouts and old veterans of WW2, in uniform, carrying flowers and troop colours.
“Before the ceremony started, we heard a shouted order, a drum beat, and a troop of about 20 Polish soldiers marched up the path, through the trees, with rifles. Later, they fired volleys over the graves before the Last Post. That was when my eyes began to water.
“The wreath laying was pretty moving too. At one point, an old man in uniform walked up to lay flowers. His arm-band showed he was a member of the AK, the Polish resistance army in World War Two. There were men and women who had experienced the hell of war alongside little kids who never had (and hopefully won’t), paying their respects to 39 soldiers from another country who died almost a century ago.”
The men are believed to have died between August and December 1918 at the prison camp.
It is likely their deaths were a result of insufficient food, overwork or one of the diseases that often swept through the overcrowded and insanitary camps.
The Heilsberg camp contained mainly Russian and Romanian prisoners, as well as French, Belgian, Italian and Serbs. The rebuilding of the cemetery included landscaping and the erection of new headstones.
A new visitor information panel has also been installed at the cemetery, giving any visitors to the site more information about it.