The Second World War Cemetery in Beja in north western Tunisia is beautifully tended.It lies within the town itself, it is long and thin in shape with the short side fronting onto a busy road. There is a memorial in the centre and lavender grows in little beds in front of many of the graves.
Beja is a bustling town about half way between Tunis and the Algerian border. It is a thoroughly Tunisian town, the buildings are white, with no tourism or other outside influences apparent. Arabic is much more dominant on the shop signs than in the resorts but all road signs are in both Arabic and French. Much of the northern half of Tunisia is covered by olive groves and Beja is a commercial centre for olive production. The surrounding countryside is hilly, with small fairly conical hills and all very green (April).
Beja is on the railway which gave it strategic importance in the second world war and is just south and west of the area of Hunts Gap and Sidi Nsir where major battles took place in the first months of 1943. There are men from many different regiments buried here, including the Hampshire Regiment which were the graves we were visiting.
The cemetery is carefully tended by the groundsman and his gardeners and we were invited to sign the visitors’ book. Being only a small cemetery, just under 400 men are here, and not close to any tourist or major commercial centres, it doesn’t get a huge number of visitors and it had been six months since the last signature.
The cemetery sits somewhat incongruously in between blocks of flats on one side and a building site on the other which presumably will soon be developed. There are large trees along the right hand boundary and the sound of birds singing was wonderful – and very loud. And of course the graves are Christian as is the memorial and therefore very different is form to everything around them. But after 65 years or so, the place feels loved and cherished and a dignified resting place for those who failed to make it back home.
Beja War Cemetery is under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The directions and description of it given on their website are currently (2009) not accurate and describe it as terraced, on a steep slope and not accessible to wheelchairs. It seems this description refers to another, larger war cemetery in the area.