Ireland’s German War Cemetery

Pointing the Way to the German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014
Pointing the Way to the German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014
Pointing the Way to the German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014
Pointing the Way to the German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014

Driving out of Dublin and into the scenic Wicklow Mountains, you may come across a German road sign. Where the small road for Glencree meets the R115, the Old Military Road.

The “Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof Glencree”, the German Soldiers’ Cemetery Glencree, is just 600 metres away. Turn off and you’ll soon see a small parking area and a carved stone set in a wall, denoting that this is, indeed, a German cemetery. Though now titled the “Deutscher KriegsFriedhof”, German War Cemetery. Or, as the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage calls it, adding another version of spelling … the “Deutscher Kriegs Friedhof“.

And being correct is not the forte of the NIAH in the description either. It reads “Small cemetery of 1959 containing the bodies of German pilots who crashed in Ireland during the Second World War.” While there are some crashed airmen (not only pilots) interred here, they are but a part of a fascinating and puzzling variety of military personnel, civilians, Germans, non-Germans, all of which died during the two world wars … with one notable exception. This is their story.

Final Rest Near the Glencree River

The setting could not be more idyllic – a small, mossy glen, next to the gently murmuring waters of the Glencree River. It was not always thus, in fact this is an old quarry, once owned by Lord Powerscourt and providing stones for military barracks nearby. But nature and landscaping have reclaimed the area. And the Irish government gave this plot of land to the Federal Republic of Germany. For use as a central German war cemetery in Ireland.

Idyllic German War Cemetery in Glencree - © Bernd Biege 2014
Idyllic German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014

Between 1959 and 1961 building work transformed the former quarry into the final resting place for more than one hundred casualties of the First and Second World War. And bodies formerly interred in around a hundred cemeteries in fifteen counties were transferred to County Wicklow. Not all of them Germans. Not all of them military personnel. The cemetery under the auspices of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German War Graves Commission, is inclusive.

And avoids German stereotypes … the whole area is dominated by a massive Celtic cross high above the cemetery proper. Often in bright sunlight while the glen itself is in shade.

Celtic Cross at the German War Cemetery in Glencree - © Bernd Biege 2014
Celtic Cross at the German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014

Almost an echo, a reflection, of the Celtic cross that adorns the war cemetery at Dietkirchen in Germany – where Irish prisoners of war were interned and, some of them, interred during the First World War. And where Roger Casement tried to recruit volunteers for his “Irish Brigade”. To be equipped by and fighting alongside the Germans. But, let us stay in Glencree …

Entering the cemetery, you’ll find a small storage building to the left, then up a few steps the graveyard proper. To your right the Glencree River, to your left a small, modernistic building. Like a bus shelter. But designed as a very basic “memorial hall”. From which you can contemplate the graves … marked by simple plaques, additional rough, standing crosses add a design element that reminds you where you are. Much of the area is covered by heather. In summer, bees are buzzing along, oblivious to any martial past.

Poetry and Sentiments

Official cemeteries for the war dead often have inscriptions that go beyond the recording of names, dates and places. From the idiotic “Dulce et decorum est …” to the more esoteric. In Glencree, the esoteric part comes out in force, it seems …

Layout of the German War Cemetery in Glencree - © Bernd Biege 2014
Layout of the German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014

Inside the small shelter, a mosaic depicts a pieta, a mother weeping for her son. Standard fare, you might say. And a combination of Christian and worldly symbolism, an invocation of a death that was painful for the mother, yet necessary for mankind, unavoidable even. And some German lines set the context:

+ Nehmet
die Söhne
ans Herz +

+ Wisset
und glaubet
es sicher:
zwingt alle Grenzen

+ Deutet
auch Sehnsucht
und Auftrag
der Toten
auf dieser

+ Wachet,
dass über
der Welt
das Sternbild
des Friedens
heraufzieht +

Always press the sons to your heart, grieving mothers. Know it, and believe it, for sure: love conquers all borders. Analyse the longing and the mission of the dead at this place, too: Be watchful, so that the constellation of peace may rise over the world.

And there is more – a massive stone between the shelter and the river has texts in German, English and Irish … here is the German:

Mein Los war der Tod
unter irischem Himmel
und ein Bett in Irlands
guter Erde + Was ich ge-
träumt geplant, band
mich ans Vaterland +
Aber mich wies der Krieg
zum Schlaf in Glencree
+ Leid war und Schmerz
was ich verlor und gewann
+ Wenn Du vorübergehst,
sprich ein Gebet, daß
Verlust sich in Segen

My lot was death under an Irish sky, a bed in Ireland’s good earth. My dream and plans bound me to the fatherland. But war directed me to sleep in Glencree. Suffering and pain I lost and gained. When you walk by, say a prayer, so that loss may become a blessing.

134 Graves – and Stories

While the poetic sentiments are easy to read (though maybe not to understand, at least at first), this is not the case with the seventy plus flat grave markers. An odd choice of typographic design and decades of rain and other environmental factors conspire to make some of them nearly unreadable. The visitor has to look closely, to take an educated guess at times.

But any visitor will soon notice a very high number of unidentified bodies.

I asked the Volksbund about this, and the answer was comprehensive (my translation):

“The bodies are the remains of airmen that crashed, seamen that drowned and later washed up on Irish shores, interned civilians … amongst the latter many victims of the sinking of the SS Arandora Star in 1940. This explains the high number of unidentified bodies. Those washed ashore often lacked any papers, dog tags, identifiable features even. Out of 134 dead, only 59 were identified.”

The Arandora Star is a story in itself, illustrating the futility of war. A ship of the Blue Star Line, she was pressed into service as a transport ship. First task … evacuations. With the Blitzkrieg raging, troops had to be withdrawn from France and Norway. The a new task awaited her: loaded with 1,200 enemy aliens, interned German and Italian civilians, she steamed for Canada. And was spotted by German U-boat legend Günther Prien on U-47 (of Scapa Flow fame). On July 2nd, 1940. Prien was on the last legs of his patrol and had one torpedo left. And he was, basically, going through the motions. The torpedo he loaded was supposed to be faulty, having misfired before.

This time it did fire – and at a position of 55°20′N 10°33′W the Arandora Star was hit and sunk. More than 600 Germans and Italians died, amongst them the German merchant navy captain Otto Burfeind, who played an important role in helping to organise the evacuation of passengers from the sinking Arandora Star. True to form this German captain went down with the British ship he had made his own …

The aftermath of the fateful torpedo attack was gruesome – bodies of victims kept being washed ashore along the Irish coastline. Some could be identified. Most never were. And many are now resting in Glencree – in Irish soil, in a German war cemetery, though they may be Italian or even English.

The Lone Belgian

Even the one body identified by his grave marker as not being German … could be. In a far corner of the cemetery, a marker declares that “Ein Belgischer Kriegstoter” (A Belgian War Victim) is buried here. Why in a German graveyard?

The Unknown Belgian Buried at the German War Cemetery in Glencree - © Bernd Biege 2014
The Unknown Belgian Buried at the German War Cemetery in Glencree – © Bernd Biege 2014

The Volksbund has an answer. Well, sort-of-an answer … because they don’t really know themselves. Here’s what Fritz Kirchmeier wrote in explanation (again my translation):

“This body was washed ashore on January 17th, 1941, at Bartragh Island, near Killala. There is a possibility that he was from the ship Ville de Grande. His body was buried in the Catholic cemetery of Crosspatrick (Killala) and exhumed on April 24th, 1960 – information in the notes regarding the first burial identified him as a Belgian civilian. As this could not be verified, the remains were interred in Glencree.”

A strange story indeed – and I could not find a ship called Ville de Grande. But the Belgian passenger ship Ville d’Arlon had joined Convoy HX 90 at the end of 1940. Struggling with steering problems, this ship fell way behind the convoy and was torpedoed December 2nd. One of eight ships from this convoy falling prey to German U-boats on the same day. But the only Belgian one. All 56 crew members lost their lives. How the authorities in County Mayo identified the body as that of a Belgian is no longer known – and it might not be relevant any more.

But the story itself has a strange twist – the U-boat sinking the Ville d’Arlon off the Irish coast was, again, U-47. Günther Prien certainly filled a lot of graves in Glencree …

Glencree as a Storybook and Memorial

Yet the stories connected to Glencree are often strange, at least from a modern point of view. Witness the grave marker for Franz Seemeier. Or that for Dr. Hermann Görtz. But these stories shall be told at another time, in separate articles. And bear one thing in mind … almost every cemetery will have its share of strange stories. Because these strange stories are all part of the human experience. As is war. And death.

The German war cemetery in Glencree is certainly worth the small detour and a stop when you are driving along the Old Military Road. As a curiosity. Or as a reminder that even neutral Ireland was affected by the “Emergency”, elsewhere known as the Second World War.

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