Commonwealth War Graves Commission Set Out To Restore Destroyed Graves in Iraq

Commonweath War Graves destroyed in the Basra Cemetery
Commonweath War Graves destroyed in the Basra Cemetery

In Barsa, Iraq a cemetery where British soldiers from both World Wars were laid to rest, has been destroyed by vandals and looters.

The graveyard once had 4,000 headstones to mark the men who have died during the First and Second World Wars. Now, the stones are all broken and destroyed or are missing all together. The cemetery fell victim to repeat vandalism and theft in the years since Saddam Hussein’s fall.

The British troops took control of the city in 2003. For the first time in decades, wreaths were placed at the cemetery on Remembrance Sunday. Some soldiers honored the graves of those relatives who died during the Mesopotamian campaign during WWI.

Unfortunately, due to the growing threat of insurgents, the British felt it would be impractical to protect the cemetery. When the British left the city in 2007, it was deemed too dangerous for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to repair the damage to the graves.

This is one of the worst instances of  Commonwealth cemetery vandalism. There were some graves vandalized in Libya within the past two years although efforts have been done to bring the cemetery back to its pristine glory.

This is another year that the graves will be unadorned on Remembrance Sunday.

“It is an act of pure destruction,” said Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, the executive chairman of the Iraq British Business Council, who visited the cemetery recently.

“We think this has been the work of militias over the years, although it’s true to say that most of the people in Basra I have spoken to are rather ashamed of what has happened.”

The main war cemetery in Baghdad is still pretty much intact. The damage done to the Basra cemetery looks as though it was done deliberately and maliciously.

Items that are missing from the site include the Cross of Remembrance and the bronze plaques from the Wall of Remembrance which memorializes the names of those who have fallen. Not all of the stones were vandalized, some were destroyed due to the intense heat Basra experiences and some were removed by a local caretaker for safekeeping. Others are believed to have been stolen and used for building material.

One end of the cemetery is a set of football goals have been put up. A plot next to the cemetery contained Indian colonial servicemen who were allied with the British, has had many of its stones destroyed also.

The Basra cemetery was only one of the many in southern Iraq that dates back to the Mesopotamian campaign in 1914. This campaign marks the British assault on the Ottoman empire.

When the British secured Basra, the troops continued North toward a disaster in Kut, a city 100 miles south of Baghdad. For five months, the British were under siege by the Turks and nearly 20,000 members of the British Army were killed or wounded. Britain would invade again with an Anglo-Indian army that was led by Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude. Maude took Baghdad on March 11, 1917.

2,551 soldiers from the First World War and 365 soldiers from the Second were buried at the Basra cemetery.

Corporal Ernest Gibbons from the Royal Field Artillery died of pneumonia in October 1918 was one of the soldiers buried there. The Peterborough Advertiser said he joined at the outbreak of the war and had been sent to India and the finally to Mesopotamia.

Cpl. Gibbons was said to be “of a very quiet disposition, and was most popular and beloved by his comrades and friends”.

Private Alex Paterson from the Army Ordnance Corps is also among those buried in Basra. He went to India and was then a tailor in Mandalay before he joined the military in February 1917. He succumbed to dysentery in May 1918.

Commonwealth war cemeteries honor approximately 54,000 servicemen from both of the wars. This figure certainly puts Britain’s modern-day military there into perspective.

During Saddam’s time, the cemeteries were maintained by local caretakers. Around the first Gulf War, the dictator ordered some of the war memorials to be moved out to a new location in the Desert.

A commonwealth war grave in Amarah, 100 miles north of Basra, has been threatened to be turned into a fairground. Britain is pleading with the local government to stop the planning.

One source with knowledge of war graves said: “The war graves tend to be on prime land in the cities, and if we don’t do something about it, people will seek to develop on it.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has began working to renovate the Basra cemetery and has Iraqi security to guard it.

The Telegraph reports that the director of HWH and Associates, Peter Hunt, has said: “Work has started to refurbish it six months ago, and with the co-operation of the Basra governor, we hope to eventually restore it to its former glory.”

A spokesperson for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission has stated: “Work is ongoing and it is our intention to start restoring the headstones when the security situation permits.”

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE