It’s still a matter of rank, even in death

The Turkish memorial in the small seperate Turkish sailors cemetery
The Turkish memorial in the small seperate Turkish sailors cemetery
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No doubt some of you find walking around cemeteries disheartening. Some might say I have a morbid curiosity, as it is something I do often.

However, a visit to the Royal Naval Cemetery in Clayhall Road, Gosport, can be quit awe-inspiring.

It contains the graves of 763 First World War sailors, two of whom are unidentified. The Second World War graves comprise 611 sailors with 36 unidentified.

There are also 350 graves of sailors who did not die in world wars but through other incidents.

One section of the cemetery is reserved for former sailors who wished to have their ashes spread among, perhaps, former messmates.

They say we are all equal in death but that does not quite work out at Haslar as any man above the rank of commander is buried in parts of the cemetery reserved for them.

So, captains are all together, commodores are side by side and so on up the ranks to admiral.

Religion does not matter in these high ranks, but from ordinary seaman through petty officer, chief, sub-lieutenant up to commander these ranks are buried in parts of the cemetery according to their religion – Catholic, Church of England and so on.

The man who looks after the cemetery and keeps it looking immaculate is Richard ‘Bob’ Shilling who has been doing this for the past 39 years. He has two assistants, Chris and Paul.

Before moving to the Royal Naval Cemetery, which opened in 1859, he spent three years at St Anne’s, just up the road. Bob is employed by the MoD and is one of the last remaining sextons in the country, a title of which he is rightly proud.

Bob tells me the title is hundreds of years old and consists of looking after the cemetery and digging the graves by hand, something Bob has done many hundreds of times. He also lives within the grounds. However, today the graves are dug by mechanical diggers.

In one corner of the cemetery are the graves of 26 Turkish seamen. In 1850 their two ships were on a courtesy visit to Portsmouth and anchored off Hardway. The men were frowned upon by Portsmuthians but Gosport took to the men and welcomed them. They remained for a couple of months and quite a few became ill with cholera and were taken into Haslar hospital. Many died and were buried in the hospital cemetery.

At the turn of the last century they were exhumed and buried together in a small separate graveyard within the naval cemetery but with no markers, just a memorial stone.

In 1984 the Turkish government decided to do something about this and now every grave has a marker and a new brick and railing fence surrounds the plot.

It is believed this is why Gosport is always known as Turktown to Portmuthians.

In another part of the cemetery are the graves of eight Wrens killed when the hut they were billeted in took a direct hit on November 23, 1941.

At the beginning of the war HMS Collingwood was opened as a Hostilities Only naval establishment for young seamen recruits. They joined up for the duration and many thousands of young men and boys passed through.

On June 18, 1943, a group of these men were in their accommodation hut when it took a direct hit. This resulted in the deaths of 30 sailors, young men only just past boyhood and aged between 17 and 18. Thirteen of them are buried together in file, head to toe.

I asked Bob about vandalism and he told me in all the years he has been in charge there has been just one case of wanton damage when some youths climbed over the wall and smashed some gravestones.

But he has been warned by the cemetery owner, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to be aware of metal thieves.

The Crosses of Sacrifice in many cemeteries have had the bronze crosses stolen in the middle of the night and Bob keeps the gates locked from Friday to Monday mornings.

What a world we now live in.