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

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail