There’s a famous cemetery near Piramide – the non-Catholic cemetery – where everyone goes to visit the graves of Shelley and Keats. But today I want to talk about Testaccio’s other cemetery, the one no-one talks about. The Commonwealth War Cemetery, on the other side of Via Nicola Zabaglia.
Unlike its popular neighbour, whose distinct and beautiful tombs rise in tiers divided by the straight black flames of cypress trees, the Commonwealth War Cemetery’s gravestones are all alike. There are 426 graves in total, each one marking a dead soldier from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India or South Africa. Distinguished by simple, rectangular headstones with a curved upper side and inscribed with the sign of a cross, they are laid out in parallel rows on a neatly clipped lawn. The nationality, rank and religion of each casualty are marked on the stone. Behind them, the ancient Aurelian Walls continue, arch after arch stretching as far as the eye can see.
In Commonwealth cemeteries across Italy, the dead from both the First and Second World wars are commemorated. According to records, while some 8,000 Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives in the First World War in Italy, around 42,000 were killed on Italian soil in the Second World War.
The cemetery in Testaccio was built in the Roman Meadows next to the Non-Catholic Cemetery in the second half of 1944, after the Allied forces entered Rome on June 4th of that year. Its “Cross of Sacrifice”, a large white cross on an octagonal pedestal, denotes that more than 40 soldiers were buried here, in accordance with Commonwealth Cemetery traditions across the country. At the entrance, an inscription in Latin and English commemorates those who helped Italy regain freedom.
To this day, the upkeep of the cemetery is in the hands of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a body established in 1917 to care for the graves of those who were killed overseas in the First and Second World wars.
Every year, on November 11th, a multi-faith service takes place at 10.45am at the Commonwealth Cemetery in Testaccio, giving those of all beliefs the chance to come together and remember the war dead. A separate Remembrance Day Service is also held, on the nearest Sunday, at All Saints’ Church on via del Babuino (10.30am).