FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Broken Remnants of Britain’s Imperial Past

by ROBERT FISK

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.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

 

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 23, 2017
Dave Brotherton
Trump, Moral Panics and Resistance
Jonathan Cook
One State: Trump Has Reminded Palestinians What It Was Always About
Bill Quigley
Ten Examples of Direct Resistance to Stop Government Raids
Linn Washington Jr.
Bigot Boy Business: Trump Exposes His Ignorance and Intolerance, Again
John W. Whitehead
The Illusion of Freedom: the Police State Is Alive and Well
Ralph Nader
Restricting People’s Use of Their Courts
David Macaray
Women As Labor Union Organizers
Kathy Kelly
Friendship in Defiance of War
Doug Weir
Why Did the US Use Depleted Uranium Weapons in Syria?
Steve Horn
Former GOP Congressional Staffer Follows Revolving Door, Now Latest Keystone XL Lobbyist
Binoy Kampmark
From Rights to Repentance: Norma McCorvey and Roe v Wade
Thomas Knapp
The Target of the “Border Adjustment Tax” is You
Chris Zinda
Open Letter to Neoliberal Environmentalists
February 22, 2017
Mike Whitney
Liberals Beware: Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas
John Grant
On Killers and Bullshitters*
Peter Linebaugh
Catherine Despard, Abolitionist
Patrick Cockburn
The Bitter Battle for Mosul
Ted Rall
Sue the Bastards? It’s Harder Than You Think
Yoav Litvin
The Emergence of the Just Jew
Kim Scipes
Strategic Thinking and Organizing Resistance
Norman Pollack
Mar-a-Lago, Ideological Refuge: Berchtesgaden, II
Fred Donner
Nixon and the Chennault Affair: From Vietnam to Watergate
Carl Kandutsch
Podesta vs. Trump
Ike Nahem
To the Memory of Malcolm X: Fifty Years After His Assassination
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Tough Talk Won’t Fix Chicago
Paul Donnelly
Betsy DeVos and the War on Public Education
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson
The End of an Alliance for Police Reform
Richard Lawless
Wall Street Demanded the Nuclear Option and the Congress Delivered
Liaquat Ali Khan
Yes, Real Donald Trump is a Muslim!
Ryan LaMothe
“Fire” and Free Speech
CounterPunch News Service
Bloody Buffalo Billboards
February 21, 2017
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Finance as Warfare: the IMF Lent to Greece Knowing It Could Never Pay Back Debt
CJ Hopkins
Goose-stepping Our Way Toward Pink Revolution
John Wight
Firestarter: the Unwelcome Return of Tony Blair
Roger Harris
Lenin Wins: Pink Tide Surges in Ecuador…For Now
Shepherd Bliss
Japanese American Internment Remembered, as Trump Rounds Up Immigrants
Boris Kagarlitsky
Trump and the Contradictions of Capitalism
Robert Fisk
The Perils of Trump Addiction
Deepak Tripathi
Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley
Sarah Anderson
To Save Main Street, Tax Wall Street
Howard Lisnoff
Those Who Plan and Enjoy Murder
Franklin Lamb
The Life and Death Struggle of the Children of Syria
Binoy Kampmark
A Tale of Two Realities: Trump and Israel
Kim C. Domenico
Body and Soul: Becoming Men & Women in a Post-Gender Age
Mel Gurtov
Trump, Europe, and Chaos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail