Thursday, January 16, 2003
Not one of our better campaigns - 16th January 2003, 21.30

Britain's campaigns in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean were mostly failures during the Great War. Salonika, Gallipoli and Iraq are not renowned for their glory, especially now that war appears to be looming. The Iraqi campaign of 1915 to 1918 was one of Britain's worst hours.

Instead, in a sobering lesson for imperial ambitions in the place now called Iraq, the British army campaign of 1915-16 was a colossal and costly blunder, a bloody, nightmarish tragedy of incompetence, slaughter and betrayal. Machine guns manned by entrenched enemy mowed down British troops by the thousands. For lack of medical care, many of the wounded and mangled were left in the sun for days. Thousands of British enlisted men, abandoned by their commanding general, starved or fell to disease.

The British Army lost over 50,000 men, more than the United States lost in Vietnam and most are buried in Iraq. There are few parallels between this campaign and the hi-tech war that will probably be waged in a few weeks or months. The only lesson that military strategists may take on board is that the Iraqi tribes proved immune to any foreign presence and tended to be bombed into submission.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains 16 burial grounds in Iraq. After years of neglect, a process of renovation is taking place.

Maintenance became difficult during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s but continued until the onset of the Gulf War in 1990. Since 1996 Commission staff have made a number of visits to Iraq and some renovation work was possible before the resumption of bombing in 1998 brought further delays. These and the effects of two wars and years of sanctions have left all of the cemeteries in need of attention and although there has been considerable damage to the fabric of the cemeteries, there has been no threat to the land or disturbance of the burials.

Following persistent visits since 1998, full agreement to resume work was received last December after a meeting between the Commission's Director-General, Mr Richard Kellaway, and the Iraqi Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Naji Sabri al Hadithi. The Commission plans a rolling maintenance programme in Iraq with the full agreement and co-operation of the Iraqi authorities.

Work is already underway at the largest of the Commission's cemeteries in Iraq, Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery, where a new perimeter fence has been installed and construction of a caretaker/watchman's quarters has begun. This will be followed by a major horticultural and structural renovation programme. More than 500 headstones have been shipped to Iraq with United Nations approval - just the first phase in a major headstone replacement programme.

At least some places are sacred.


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