We Tell Their Stories: Casualties from across the Commonwealth

At Commonwealth War Graves it’s our duty to care for all the war dead of the Commonwealth nations who fought in the World Wars. Explore some of the stories of the fallen commemorated by us.

We Tell Their Stories

The Commonwealth and the World Wars

Indian Army soldiers meet with Italian children on the back of a Sherman tank in Italy, circa 1943.

At the time, many of the nations that make up the Commonwealth were part of the British Empire.

Men and women from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and a host of other Commonwealth nations around the world fought in the World Wars, representing all branches of the military, medical and merchant naval organisations that participated. 

The 1.7 million casualties commemorated by Commonwealth War Graves war cemeteries and memorials show the huge effort and loss encountered by all these nations during these devastating conflicts:

At the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation, our mission is to keep the memory of these lost men and women alive so present and future generations can remember and appreciate their enduring legacy.

We’ve taken a small selection of those stories to look at the Commonwealth nation’s huge contribution to the World Wars. Read on to learn more.

Commonwealth casualty stories of the World Wars

Karamjeet Singh JudgeLieutenant Karamjeet Singh Judge VC

Born on 25 May 1923 to the Kapurthala Chief of Police, Karamjeet Singh Judge started his military career at the Bangalore Officer’s Training School, inspired by his brother’s military service.

By the time of the latter stages of the war in Burma (present-day Myanmar), in March 1945, Karamjeet was a 22-year-old Lieutenant with 4th Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment. 

He was by all accounts a dedicated and highly brave soldier. According to his commanding officer Major Johnny Whitmarsh-Knight, Karamjeet previously told him he was keen to find glory in battle.

At this time, the Allies were preparing for a major offensive aimed at capturing Burma’s capital city Rangoon. One of the first major objectives of the march to Rangoon was capturing Meiktila, an important logistics and communications hub.

In the Battle of Meiktila, Karamjeet performed the action that saw him posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross: Britain’s highest military medal for gallantry.

Karamjeet’s Victoria Cross medal citation, as published in the London Gazette, gives the following:

“In Burma on 18th March, 1945, Lieut. Karamjeet Singh Judge commanded a platoon of a company of the 15th Punjab Regiment ordered to capture the Cotton Mill area at Myingyan against stiff enemy resistance from numerous bunkers. 

“Time and again the infantry were held up by heavy fire from bunkers not visible to the tanks. On every such occasion Lieut. Karamjeet Singh Judge, with complete disregard for his own safety, went forward to re-call the tanks and direct them to these bunkers. 

“In this way ten bunkers were eliminated, and this brilliant and courageous officer in every case led the infantry charges against the bunkers when the tanks had dealt with them. 

“The Lieutenant was mortally wounded leading a section to clear the last three bunkers, but his men were able to storm the strong point and complete a long and arduous task. 

“During the battle Lieut. Karamjeet Singh Judge showed cool and calculated bravery; he dominated the entire battlefield by his numerous successive acts of superb gallantry. In three previous and similar actions this young officer had proved himself an outstanding leader. 

“In this, his last, action he gave a superb example of inspiring leadership and matchless courage.”

Karamjeet was cremated in accordance with his faith and is commemorated on the Taukkyan Cremation Memorial, Myanmar.

Third Officer Joan Esther Marshall

Joan Esther MarshallJoan Esther Marshall was born in 1913 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Joan was privately educated in her homeland but moved with her family to Northumberland in 1926, aged 13. Later, she went to Edinburgh’s College of Domestic Science before finding work as Catering Manager for Airwork at Heston.

With 30 solo hours in her pilot’s logbook, Joan joined the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War. A pre-war flyer, Joan had completed her 
Royal Aero Club certifications in 1937.

The Air Transport Auxiliary ferried new and damaged aircraft from factories and workshops to frontline units, airbases and anywhere else aircraft were needed during the Second World War. 

By December 1940, Joan had 60 hours of total flying time logged. She had flown a variety of aircraft including Moth I, II, Avro Cadet, Cirrus Moth, Leopard Moth, and Whitney Straight.

Sadly, Joan died in an accident on 20 June 1942 when her crat spun into the ground at RAF White Waltham, Berkshire.

The official report said it was due to "a spin caused by stalling on a turn during a landing approach, for which it has been impossible to find a reason."

Joan is buried in Maidenhead Cemetery, close to Commonwealth War Graves’ headquarters.

Second Lieutenant Henare Mokeua Kohere

Henare Mokeua KohereHenare Mokeua Kohere, the grandson of a Māori chief, was born on 10 March 1880 in Ngati Porou.

At school, Henara had shown promise as an army cadet. He was a highly skilled rugby player, representing his province, and a haka leader amongst his local community.

He was also clearly a brave, conscientious man, as seen in 1901 when Henare was awarded the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand Bronze Medal for rescuing a young man whose boat had capsized.

In 1902, he was selected to lead the Maori section of the New Zealand contingent which attended the coronation of Edward VII in London. Henare trained and led the contingent in the haka.

Henare had been a farmer, working on the family farm, since leaving school but in June 1915 he joined the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion as an officer.

Before leaving for the Western Front, Henare wrote a letter to his children: "The weather has been good here. Peta is sitting in my room reading a book. 
Look after yourselves, be good to each other and be good to your Nanny. All of us are doing fine. On Sunday I’ll most probably go into town to church to one of the beautiful buildings of the Pākehā. There is nothing else to write about – just the usual routine of soldiers’ duties. We are getting used to this way of life. Goodbye for now. 

"Huinga – look after your young sister, Ngārangi, and be good to Hiki. Goodbye Hiki. When I come back you will be a big boy. Say goodbye to all your cousins and relations. It won’t be long before you see Papa again".

The Pioneer Battalions built and maintained the combat-supporting infrastructure on the Western Front, including trenches, roads, communication networks and even light railways.

Working tirelessly, the Pioneer soldiers were often exposed to enemy fire. Their ability to work under such duress showed incredible bravery.

The NZ Pioneers were present during the infamous Battle of the Somme. 

On 14 September, the New Zealand Division was set to launch a new assault on the German frontline. It was to be the Pioneers’ duty to dig new communication trenches to link them up with what were expected to be newly captured German trenches after the attack.

While at work Hanare was wounded by shellfire on the 14th. 

Henare was wounded by a German shell on 14 September. He was placed on a stretcher and taken to a dugout for shelter. Here he was reported to be ‘comfortable and happy’ despite being badly wounded. When asked by a fellow officer how he was, Henare replied, ‘Ka nui te kino’ – things are very bad.’

Henare was evacuated to the Casualty Clearing Station at Heilly Station, where he died two days later on 16 September 1916. His men mourned the loss of a greatly respected officer. Today he is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe.

Trooper Albert “Tibby” Cotter

Albert Tibby CotterBorn on 3 December 1883 in Sydney, Australia, Albert “Tibby” Cotter was one of the greatest bowlers of his era.

His 5’8” frame gave Albert a unique slinging action that gave his deliveries a combination of blazing speed and power. Albert notorious as a regular stump breaker.

Sensational speed aside, critics of Albert’s game noted his deliveries sometimes lacked control. On his first tour of England, Albert struck English cricketer superstar W.G. Grace on the body with a trademark rapid delivery, earning him the nickname “Terror” Cotter with English fans.

Albert took 89 test wickets across 21 Tests with a bowling average of 28.64. Albert’s total First Class tally came to 442 wickets at 24.27.

Albert could have played more international tests but in 1912 he was part of the “Rebellious Six” – six Australian cricketers who made themselves unavailable for that year’s Tri-Nation Cricket Tournament in England.

After this incident, Albert never played a test match for Australia again.

In a boon for recruiters, the popular sportsman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in April 1915. It’s thought his influence was enough to encourage more recruits to join the armed forces.

With the 1st Australian Light Horse, Albert saw service in the Gallipoli Campaign. He was transferred to the 12th Light Horse and subsequently served in Palestine.

On 31 December 1917, the 12th Light Horse joined the 4th Light Horse Brigade at the Battle of Beersheba: a brilliantly daring cavalry charge that captured the town from Ottoman defenders, sweeping them aside in a storm of hoof and bullets.

Albert was serving as a stretcher bearer at the time but participated in the cavalry charge. He was “shot from the saddle” in the attack and died shortly after. 

Today, Albert is buried at Beersheba War Cemetery.

Pilot Officer John William Thrasher

Pilot Officer John ThrasherJohn William Thrasher was one of fifteen children born to parents Charles and Irene Thrasher of Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada. After finishing education, John worked for two years as a printer’s apprentice before become a laboratory worker in a soda ash plant.

John enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in May 1941. He was selected for Air Observer Training, which he completed on 25 September 1941. He passed out 20th in his training class of 22 but with a 98% rating in bombing, John qualified as a bomb aimer.

John was posted to 19 Operation Training Unit, RAF Kinross on arriving in the United Kingdom in July 1942. At Kinross, John met crewmates Pilot Office Geoff Rice and met two others, Flight Officer Richard Macfarlane and Wireless Operator Bruce Gowrie. 

At first, John and his crewmates were part of 57 Squadron. They flew on nine operations together before being selected for an altogether more special raid at in October 1942: Operation Chastise.

Better known as the Dams Raids, Operation Chastise has become legendary. 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson were tasked with destroying several massive dams in the heart of Germany to disrupt industry in the region and hamper the German war machine.

It was an extremely audacious plan. 617 Squadron’s Lancaster Bombers would have to approach at an extremely low level deep within enemy territory to hit the dams, using unique “bouncing bombs” to crack the huge structures.

As part of 617 Squadron, John’s bomb aiming skills were severely tested during the Operation Chastise training period, but he acquitted himself well, coming second overall in the bombing practice sessions conducted in the first half of April 1943.

On the Dams Raid, AJ-H took off from RAF Scampton at 21.31 but after flying too low over the Waddensee, the mine was ripped out of the bomb bay and the interior of the aircraft severely flooded. 

Ultimately the Dams raid was a success, but John and his crewmates were lucky to get home safely to Scampton when hydraulic power for the undercarriage was lost. 

Geoff Rice is said to have told the story of their tricky flight back to Bommber Command Commander-in-Chief Sir Athur Harris, who remarked: “You’re a very lucky young man”.  

Guy Gibson added: “Bad luck – I almost did the same – it could have happened to anybody”.

From July to December 1943, John continued to fly with Rice and the rest of his crew on many operations – including several to Italy and the raids on the Antheor viaduct (most of which resulted in returning to Scampton via RAF Blida in Algeria to refuel) and the disastrous attack on the Dortmund Ems canal.

On 20th December, eight crews from 617 Squadron were sent on an operation to attack an armaments factory near Liège in Belgium. Geoff Rice and his Dams Raid crew among them. The target marking wasn’t visible, so the crew was ordered to return with their bombs but at 14,000 feet above Merbes-Le Chateau in Belgium, were shot down by a German night fighter.

Geoff Rice was the only survivor and the rest of the crew were buried in Gosselies Communal Cemetery, near Hainaut in Belgium.

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Thank you from everyone here at the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation.

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