HRH The Earl of Wessex opens new Peace Garden in memory of Muslim war heroes

12 November 2015

In an act of remembrance, His Royal Highness The Earl of Wessex KG GCVO, officially opened a new Peace Garden today [12 November 2015] at the site of a beautifully restored Muslim Burial Ground in Woking, Surrey.

The site that was once the final resting place for 19 Muslim soldiers from the Great War, and a further eight casualties of the Second World War, has been restored to its former glory to create a lasting legacy for the 27 servicemen who paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend Britain.

The four-year restoration project of this Grade II listed structure forms part of Woking’s centenary commemorations of the Great War and celebrates the Borough’s relationship with the Shah Jahan Mosque, the first purpose-built mosque in the UK.

Located on the south east corner of Horsell Common, a short distance from the Mosque, the site was purchased by the War Office, and a Muslim Burial Ground was commissioned in 1915 to ensure Muslim soldiers could be buried according to their religious rights.

Although the bodies of the 27 servicemen laid to rest at the site were later reinterred at the larger Brookwood Military Cemetery in 1969, the Muslim Burial Ground remained sacred and untouched. Funding from the Muslim community and public bodies including Historic England, the Armed Forces Covenant Grant Scheme, and the Department for Communities and Local Government, has led to the transformation of the site into a befitting Islamic inspired Peace Garden.

The Earl of Wessex was accompanied on a tour of the national and internationally significant heritage site by project leader, Dr Zafar Iqbal from Woking Borough Council, where the Earl was introduced to representatives from the organisations that have supported the project and family members of the servicemen formerly buried there.

The Earl had the honour of declaring the memorial officially open with the unveiling of a plaque that will adorn the entrance of the restored Chattri, inscribed in Arabic with the words “in the name of God the most merciful and most kind.”

Keeping alive the memory of all those who have fought to protect our freedom

Among the civic dignitaries attending the opening ceremony of the Muslim Burial Ground Peace Garden, The Rt Hon Earl Howe PC, Defence Minister, said: “It is vital that we keep alive the memory of all those who have fought to protect the freedoms we now enjoy in the UK, including the enormous contribution of Muslims who came to our aid when we needed it most. The MOD is delighted to celebrate the achievements of past Muslim personnel, and those currently serving in Armed Forces operations, from conflicts to humanitarian efforts.

“This new Peace Garden, transformed from a post-War burial ground into a beautiful and calm place of contemplation affords us an opportunity to reflect on our shared values and remember all personnel who served, and especially those who valiantly work to keep Britain safe both at home and abroad.”

“Our Armed Forces share the values of the Islamic faith, and protect those values at home and abroad.”

Keeping in our thoughts our current serving personnel

Speaking at the reception that followed at the Shah Jahan Mosque, Major General PAE Nanson CBE – Commandant The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, said: “The Army is incredibly proud of the strong links it has with our Muslim communities. The ceremony this morning has presented us with a unique opportunity to remember the vast sacrifice Muslim soldiers and officers have made, and continue to make, on behalf of our Country.”

A site of architectural interest

Speaking about the renovation works, Paul Stamper, Senior Designation Adviser at Historic England said: "The Woking Muslim Burial Ground was established in 1917 to inter soldiers of the Indian Army who died in south coast war hospitals. Its architectural interest, and unique status as a site of memory for Muslims who died fighting for Britain in two World Wars, is recognised in its national designation as a Grade II listed structure.

"Historic England is pleased to have been able to support the work of Woking Borough Council and the Horsell Common Preservation Society to ensure that the fabric of this important war memorial in a conservation area is restored to mark the centenary commemorations of World War I."

Restored to its original state

Horsell Common Preservation Society has owned the Muslim Burial Ground since the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reinterred the bodies and relinquished responsibility for the site in 1969. Despite two decades of discussion and planning between Woking Borough Council and the Society, it wasn’t until the offer of financial help from Historic England (formerly English Heritage) was received that restoration works could commence.

Chair of Horsell Common Preservation Society, Robin Hoyle, said: “We are delighted that the structure is now restored to its original state and surrounds the newly installed Peace Garden. It is now a place of beauty, peace and tranquillity and a very fitting memorial for the many thousands from the Indian subcontinent who died serving this country. The Society hopes that this restored War Memorial will be much visited and used in the future."

Pride of place

Speaking on behalf of the many organisations and community groups involved in the restoration, Councillor John Kingsbury, Leader of Woking Borough Council, said: “We were honoured to welcome His Royal Highness at the opening ceremony for the Muslim Burial Ground Peace Garden. His presence symbolised the importance this unique site holds both nationally and internationally, and for the people of Woking.

“An asset for the community, we have been delighted to involve students from Bishop David Brown School, who worked alongside serving personnel to plant the colourful heathers and install the last of the silver birch trees. We hope the experience helped this younger generation to understand about remembrance, conflict, and the importance of peace – exactly what we aspired the legacy of this Peace Garden to be.

“A key objective of the restoration project has been to enhance pride of place, encourage visitors to attend and provide a focal point for future acts of commemoration. My sincere thanks and gratitude to all those who supported the project. Together we have delivered a future heritage site for all to appreciate, to pay their respects and give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy today.”

View the images from the opening ceremony here.