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[casi] Robert Fisk August 23, 2003

The Cemetery at Basra
Broken Remnants of Britain's Imperial Past

[in Basra]

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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