Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: January 2024

Young Lives Lost: A Wartime Tragedy in Cornwall

I have always been fascinated by the experiences of evacuees, those children of the Second World War who were sent from their city homes to more rural locations away from the threat of the Blitz. Photographs of the time show them clustered on railway stations, clutching gas masks, small suitcases, teddy-bears. Some beam cheerfully at the camera, for there must have been a sense of adventure as they headed towards a new world and a new life. Others force a brave smile trying to cover their anxiety and apprehension. A few are blank faced, already uprooted and bewildered. Older siblings keep a determined hold on smaller brothers and sisters, the latter too young even to read the identifying labels around their necks. And several cannot hold back the tears.

National and local archives document the evacuations, and they are brought to life in the many personal reminiscences which have been recorded.* Their stories tell of  children who led two lives: for the luckiest ones a sunny, bucolic interlude followed by a happy return home, and the bonus of two loving families forever after; for others a traumatic and heartbreaking time away from the warmth and security of parents and familiar environment; and for a third and perhaps the saddest group an interval of intense happiness and expanding horizons before returning to cold, indifferent parents.

Strikingly apparent from many of  the accounts are the very deep class divisions which severed  Britain in the 1940s. In an early teaching post, I learned more of this from two older colleagues who had been evacuees. Ron, from a working-class background in south London, found himself with  a prosperous family in Kent  who treated him kindly, but lost in an alien world he was desperately homesick and twice ran away, determined to walk home. After the second attempt his mother decided he was better off risking the bombs with his parents than facing further distress and misery alone. This proved a wise decision, not least because Kent was soon redefined from a Reception to an Evacuation Zone due to the threat of invasion.

Mike by contrast left his very middle-class London home for a working-class village in Scotland where he felt isolated in a hostile environment, looked upon with suspicion and resentment. His one consolation was the semi-friendly rivalry he developed  with the only other high achiever in the village school. Some years later, when he was about to begin his studies at Cambridge, he heard that his former school mate was about to enter a Borstal. “There but fortune,” he reflected wryly.

One of the most pitiful stories of evacuees comes from Gunwalloe on the Lizard Peninsula, one of the oldest settlements in Cornwall. The Lizard coast is magnificent: when the sun shines the sea caresses auriferous shores, and in winter the austere beauty of the granite cliffs competes with the grey lowering skies, and the waves pound contemptuously on the rocks.

Golden shores in the sunshine
The austere beauty of winter

Gunwalloe must have seemed a paradise to imaginative, adventurous evacuees, a story book location with deserted beaches, cliffs to climb, rock pools, a history of smuggling and shipwrecks, and swimming in summer.

But those beaches deemed suitable for amphibious landings by enemy tanks and troops had been mined.

Ronald Munting, an evacuee from London, and his friend Harry Dale, a local lad, both aged twelve, were killed by an unmarked landmine on one of those beaches.

The medieval church of Saint Winwaloe crouches at Church Cove surrounded by its graveyard, and there two pitiful graves bear stark testimony:

The church of Saint Winwaloe at Church Cove

In Fondest Memory of


Beloved son of

Henry Cyril and Caroline Dale

Accidentally killed in a minefield

July 23, 1944, aged 12 years.


  Memory of

Ronald Munting

Died 26 July 1944 aged 12 years.

Evacuated from Hornsey Rise N.19

Came to Cornwall. Was killed with his

Friend Harry Dale by an unmarked landmine

At Gunwalloe Fishing Cove. His parents

Were also killed in the London Blitz.

Faced with the brutal irony of a child sent, surely after much heart-searching by sad and anxious parents, from home to a “safe place,” only to meet with a tragic death, it is almost a relief to realise that his parents predeceased him and that had he remained in London he too would probably have been a victim of the Blitz. For even today for all the surrounding beauty a deep melancholy hangs over the churchyard at Gunwalloe.


*For photographs and archive film of evacuees see:

And for personal reminiscences:

Gillian Mawson Britain’s Wartime Evacuees (November 2016)

The evacuation has also spawned a wealth of literature, not least the children’s books, chief among them Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, herself an evacuee, and Michelle Magorian’s Good Night, Mister Tom.

Theodoros Kolokotronis, The Old Man Of Morea

England, January: looking out at a leaden sky, a vicious wind battering the window, the garden sodden and sulky from weeks of rain, it is hard to believe that six months ago I was hesitating to leave the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel for the sweltering streets of Athens. With the temperatures exceeding 40 degrees, fires lapping at the margins of the city, heat rising from the pavements and trapped between the buildings, and bottled water turning warm in minutes, the prospect was not welcoming. But I knew where to seek refuge, and a short walk took me to the First Cemetery of Athens.

While my fellow tourists slumped, sluggish and irritable, in the cafes of Plaka, waiting for the torrid hours to pass and the Acropolis to reopen, I wandered beneath the pines and cypresses, a world away from the traffic and turmoil of the city. The cemetery opened in 1837, soon after the founding of the modern Greek state. Built with marble from Mount Pendeli, it houses eminent Greeks and foreigners beneath magnificent sculptures. Such is the quality of the work and the prestige of the inhabitants, that it resembles more an open-air sculpture park and museum than a graveyard. Easily rivalling Pere La Chaise and Highgate cemeteries, it has the additional attraction of being less known, and that day I had it to myself, save for the cats stretched languid and lethargic amongst the monuments.

The absence of plans and guides to the cemetery might have been a disadvantage, but I had all day, and find an extra satisfaction in locating my targets unaided. My list of notable internments was long, and I did not encounter every individual I sought, though some, proudly located in prime positions, came easily, and others appeared serendipitously as I meandered along the side paths.

Theodoros Kolokotronis was impossible to miss: a larger-than-life figure, he sits with legs planted firmly apart, hands with splayed fingers resting on his knees, knives and pistols thrust into his belt, gazing out from under bushy eyebrows above a luxuriant moustache. He is every inch a romantic revolutionary. A jumble of Greek flags, flowers, fading wreaths and candles at his feet confirm his status and enduring popularity as the archetypal hero of 1821.

Theodoros Kolokotronis, General in Chief, 1770-1843

Kolokotronis spent his childhood on the Mani Peninsula in the Morea Eyalet, a Peloponnesian province of the Ottoman Empire. He came from a family of klephts, highwaymen, bandits and brigands living in the mountains. Descended from those who had retreated there in the fifteenth century to avoid Ottoman rule, they waged a continuous guerilla war against their oppressors. Unable to control these mountainous areas themselves, the Ottomans employed armatoles, irregular, semi-independent, local soldiers, to enforce their rule. Kolokotronis was one of many who alternated between the roles of klepht and armatole, pragmatically and opportunistically reversing roles and allegiances. Men like him were to form the nucleus of the Greek fighting forces during the War for Independence.

In 1806 when the Ottomans attempted to eliminate the klephts of Morea, Kolokotronis escaped to the Ionian islands where he joined the revolutionary Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) which coordinated the launching of the Greek War of Independence. In 1821 he returned to the Peloponnese and participated in the liberation of Kalamata under the leadership of Mavromichalis. Already 50 years old, hence the soubriquet The Old Man of Morea, he was appointed to take charge of the Peloponnesian troops, and laid siege to Tripolitsa which fell to the Greeks after five months. In 1822 his guerilla forces routed the Ottomans at the Battle of Dervenakia and went on to take Nafplion, Corinth and Acrocorinth. At Nafplion, in swashbuckling style, he rode his horse up the steep slopes of Palamidi to celebrate his ascendancy, claiming, “Greeks, God has signed our liberty and will not go back on his promise.” His victories, destroying a large part of the Ottoman forces, were instrumental in establishing the revolution.

But between 1823-25 disagreements between central Greece and the Peloponnese precipitated civil wars alongside the War of Independence, and Kolokotronis was imprisoned on Hydra. He was amnestied and restored to his position when Egyptian forces reconquered a large part of the Peloponnese in support of the Ottomans. Nonetheless, with the aid of the large and well organised Egyptian army, the Ottomans took Missolonghi and Athens. Reluctantly, the Greeks called on foreign aid. By the Treaty of London (1827), Russia, France, and Britain, conscious of their own geopolitical interests, called on the Ottoman Empire to grant Greece autonomy. They were ignored. At the subsequent Battle of Navarino Ottoman and Egyptian forces were defeated, but it took two further military interventions before Greece was recognised as an independent state in February 1830.

Kolokotronis died in 1843, the crowds attending his funeral lauding him as a symbol of the Greek War of Independence, and Yannis Makriyannis in his Memoirs hailed the klephts as “the yeast of Liberty.”

And yet, there is little doubt, that as well flamboyant freedom fighters, the klephts were callous thieves, running personal fiefdoms with exhortation, and directing violence as much against the local peasantry as against their Turkish overlords. Motivated during the war not just by national aspirations and patriotism, they also sought economic gain and the expansion of their personal influence in the Peloponnese. Nor can it be forgotten that the fall of Tripolitsa was followed by the massacre and torture of civilians on a scale mirroring the Ottomans’ own atrocities. Mary Shelley however thought the Greeks justified: “Our friends in Greece are getting on famously. All the Morea is subdued, and much treasure was acquired with the capture of Tripolitsa. Some cruelties have ensued. But the oppressor in the end must buy tyranny with blood – such is the law of necessity.” 

Two hundred years have passed, so time perhaps to leave Kolokotronis in peace as his epitaph requests:

Softly wayfarer

For here sleeps the old man of the Morea

His slumber do not disturb.

But one last thing: despite the inscription, widespread claims, and the splendid grave, Kolokotronis is not here at all. In 1930 Venizelos authorised the removal of his bones to Tripolis where they were placed in a crypt beneath a memorial to the Heroes of the Revolution of 1821. During the German/Italian occupation of Greece in 1942 Italians desecrated the memorial and scattered the bones. They were rescued by thirteen-year-old George Tsutsanis and his father, and replaced in the crypt which today lies beneath an equestrian statue of Kolokotronis.


The First Cemetery of Athens is a Box of Delights full of interesting people, and, unlike Kolokotronis, most of them really are there. I recommend a visit if you are in the city, but go equipped with mosquito repellent, the mosquitoes love those trees too. I was forewarned and, slathered in Deet, survived almost unbitten.

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