The Cemetery at Basra: Broken Remnants of Britain’s Imperial Past

The soldiers of Britain’s forgotten armies of Iraq lie beneath the dirt and garbage of Basra’s official war cemetery, almost 3,000 of them, their gravestones scattered and smashed, the memorial book long looted from the entrance, even the names of the dead stripped from the screen wall.

Only by prowling through the dust and litter can you find a clue to some of the great ironies of recent Mesopotamian history. Here lies Sapper GW Curry of the Royal Engineers, for example, who was 31 when he died on 5 May 1943. His gravestone is broken, lying on its side. Not far away is the stone erected in memory of Aircraftman 1st Class KG Levett of the RAF, who died on 31 October 1942. Still visible at the bottom is the inscription: “We shall meet again in a happier place. Mum.”

A few metres further is the memorial to Leading Seaman FC Smith who died aboard HMS President III in March 1943, a break in the stone running through the last lines of Binyon’s “Poem for the Fallen”: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them.”

The ruined Indian army cemetery opposite contains an unknown number of bodies whose numbers and names were–to the shame of the British Empire for which they died–never recorded. But if the great British and Indian cemeteries at Basra are a disgrace, their fate was probably inevitable. They came under sustained shellfire during the eight-year war that followed Saddam Hussein’s insane 1980 invasion of Iran, and looters stripped the place of brass and stones in the aftermath of the Shia Muslim revolt against Saddam in 1991. The Iraqi son of the old caretaker told me that his father was, for many years, too frightened to enter the graveyard.

Yet here lie the bones–both literal and historical–of imperial adventures that have much in common with our most recent invasion of Iraq. The British cemetery contains 2,551 burials, 74 of them unidentified, of soldiers who stormed ashore in Basra in 1914 at the start of a British-Indian campaign that eventually captured all of Iraq from the Ottoman Turks.

Somewhere amid the bracken, for example, lie the remains of Major George Wheeler VC of the 7th Hariana Lancers, killed as “this gallant Officer”– so his official citation says — single-handedly charged the Turkish standards at Shaiba on 13 April 1915. After Rashid Ali had declared an alliance with Nazi Germany in Baghdad in April 1941, the British stormed Basra again–just as they did in March–and lost hundreds more men as they drove Iraqi troops from the port city in 1941.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, whose director-general visited Iraq two months ago, there are ambitions plans to restore the Basra cemetery, to re-erect new headstones and place the names of the 1914-18 war dead back on the wall.

In fact, the commission was preparing the rehabilitation of the North Gate British cemetery in Baghdad–with the permission of Saddam’s government, of course–when the latest invasion began. The Basra restoration will take up to five years and cost, according to the commission’s spokesman Peter Francis, “millions”. Always supposing, of course, that “stability”–that quality so hard to find in Iraq–is restored.

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Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there