The Woking Peace Garden: How One Community Came Together to Honour its Muslim War Heroes

“For God We Are, And To God We Go” These words, emblazoned on a memorial stone of British Portland and Indian Granite, welcome visitors to the Woking Peace Garden. They capture the garden’s integral tranquillity and calm and form the perfect tribute to the bravery of millions of soldiers in the face of unimaginably challenging […]

“For God We Are, And To God We Go”

These words, emblazoned on a memorial stone of British Portland and Indian Granite, welcome visitors to the Woking Peace Garden.

They capture the garden’s integral tranquillity and calm and form the perfect tribute to the bravery of millions of soldiers in the face of unimaginably challenging circumstances, in service of our future freedom.

A Century of Service

In so far as the Woking Peace Garden provides a space to reflect upon the magnitude and meaning of this loss, it is like other war memorials.

But unlike other war memorials, the Peace Garden pays tribute to a specific sacrifice, one which is sometimes overlooked or misunderstood. That is, the sacrifice made by more than three million soldiers from undivided India in WW1 and WW2, at least a million of whom were Muslim.

‘At least’ because official estimates continue to increase in volume, particularly those pertaining the Muslim allied contribution to WW1.

New research projects such as the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation have uncovered fresh information about the Muslims who fought and worked during the war. When the contribution of labourers by Arabic and North African Muslims is taken into account, the estimated figure for WW1 is an astonishing 2.5 million.

So how did the Peace Garden become the focus of this history and service?

Chiefly, through the dedicated efforts of the Woking community; they took a crumbling and dilapidated site and created an opportunity for education, commemoration and cooperation.

The Story of the Peace Garden

The original Woking Muslim Military Cemetery was opened in 1917 by the British Government in response to German propaganda, which claimed that Muslim Indian soldiers were not being buried according to their religious rites.

The cemetery was to be the final resting place of soldiers who died at army hospitals on the South Coast, receiving the bodies of 19 Muslim Indian soldiers connected with WW1, a further 8 connected with WW2.

But unfortunately, due to the threat of vandalism, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission took the decision to exhume and reinter the bodies of the servicemen in Brookwood Military Cemetery in 1969.

The land was handed back to Horsell Common Preservation society (HCPS), but since they had no funds to maintain it, the site fell into disrepair.

Fortunately, Historic England (formerly English Heritage) granted the site listed status as a Grade 2 structure in 1984. The listing was the HCPS the impetus needed to fight for the site’s preservation, but though the vegetation was cleared, and the walls stabilised, attempts to find funding for restoration remained unsuccessful, despite applications throughout the 1990s.

A Community of Common Purpose

Everything changed when Woking Borough Council took up the cause in 2011. In conjunction with HCPS, the council led a search for funding, culminating in the receipt of a grant from English Heritage.

During the summer of 2013, works to restore the Burial Ground to its form glory and create a garden finally commenced.

The restoration compromised the installation of a gilded finial in the form of a lotus flower on top of the entrance Chettri and ornate entrance gates, as well as the restoration of the exterior wall brickwork and stone capping.

The external structure is an homage to the history of British Islam; an interpretation of early 20thcentury Islamic architecture, inspired by the Mughal style employed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Each year the Armed Forces pays tribute to fallen soldiers.

Posted by Armed Forces Muslim Association on Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Last year’s annual commemoration at the Woking Peace Garden

This spirit of synchronicity was also embodied in the garden’s groundworks. The process brought different communities and cultures together in a series of community days, including serving soldiers from the British Army, members of the Armed Forces Muslim Association, and Horsell Common Preservation Society.

Students from Bishop David Brown School, members from the Shah Jahan Mosque and the local community at large were also brought into the reconstruction via garden landscaping.

This was a project which asked old and young, all faiths and none, to join together in planting 27 Himalayan Birch trees about the garden, one for each of the soldiers originally laid to rest in burial ground.

The Peace Garden then officially opened on Thursday 12 November 2015 by His Royal Highness The Earl of Wessex KG GCVO, after the final silver birch was rooted in the ground. 

Remembrance as a National Value

The result is a truly collaborative commemoration space that captures the spirit of remembrance.

This meaning was placed at the very heart of the Peace Garden via a memorial water feature inscribed with the names of servicemen, bold strips of pink and white heather orientated towards Mecca, scented plants such as Rosa rugosa and Sarcococca orientalis and two stone ceremonial prayer mats and benches.

When you stand at the entrance to the Garden, these symbols of faith and sacrifice coalesce in one perfectly symmetrical visual, encapsulating the beauty of our parallel lives and identities.

It’s a powerful image which declares a powerful truth. Though we are different, and though we may sometimes disagree, we areallies; bonded by the values of community, of pride in our heritage, of tolerance, which lie at the heart of our society.

This recognition should be at the forefront of our minds this year, as we commemorate the centenary of WW1. To look back on the past 100 years is to perceive tragedy and suffering on a large scale, but also the birth of a modern era, where unrivalled peace and prosperity has been made possible through cooperation and dialogue.

Honouring sacrifice means learning from our mistakes. It means collaborating to overcome the conflicts we are confronted by.

This starts with initiatives like the Woking Peace Garden which recognise our communities as distinct, yet connected, and remind us why it is that we remember.

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