No peace for the dead at Baghdad's restive North Gate

Thousands of war dead lie in Baghdad’s North Gate War Cemetery – resting not in peace but in neglected graves, their burial ground a victim of ongoing hostilities in Iraq.

Thousands of war dead lie in Baghdad’s North Gate War Cemetery – resting not in peace but in neglected graves, their burial ground a victim of ongoing hostilities in Iraq.
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The hand-painted metal sign at the entrance, written in English and Arabic, says Baghdad's North Gate War Cemetery is "currently undergoing restoration".

But the legend is dated November 20, 1997, and the rust slowly consuming the letters tells a different story.

Here in the heart of the Iraqi capital, in a patch of dusty, sun-cracked land two blocks east of the Tigris and five kilometres north of the International Zone, lie the remains of 7,185 men of the British Empire, killed during the First World War and the subsequent 1920 revolt against the mandate imposed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The dead receive few visitors. Those who do come - an occasional journalist looking for historical poignancy, an off-duty member of the coalition forces on a pilgrimage to the grave of an ancestor - do so in the company of armed security guards, who warily scan the rooftops of the surrounding buildings and keep visits brief.

What such visitors find is a sad shadow of the normally well-cared-for cemeteries run by the British-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission, set up in 1917 to cope with the dead of the First World War. The body now looks after the remains of more than a million men in 2,500 cemeteries in 150 countries.

North Gate is the largest of the commission's 13 graveyards and memorials in Iraq, which commemorate 54,000 Commonwealth dead from two world wars.

The final resting place of 4,533 Britons, 2,614 Indians, 48 Australians and New Zealanders and a single South African, it has been off-limits to the commission for years. Their final resting place defiled by neglect and vandalism, these men have had the misfortune to become the casualties of not one, but two wars.

Britain's invasion of Mesopotamia upon the outbreak of war in 1914 - initially to protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company refinery on the eastern bank of the Shatt al Arab - led to the disastrous 147-day siege of Kut Al Amara, 160km south-east of Baghdad.

Overshadowed by contemporary events at Gallipoli, it was nevertheless one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history.

By the time Major-General Charles Townshend surrendered Kut in April 1916, more than 20,000 men had been killed or wounded and a further 13,000 were taken prisoner and marched north into Turkey. The majority died en route or in the brutal captivity that followed.

A memorial at North Gate records that a few of the dead buried here were some of those who "perished during the march from Kut or in the prison camps of Anatolia... who came out of great tribulation".

Most, however, were part of Britain's response - an irresistible Anglo-Indian army of vengeance raised and led by Lt Gen Sir Stanley Maude, a veteran of combat in Egypt, the Boer War, the Western Front and Gallipoli.

"It was to be expected," noted a contemporary German military report, "that after the capture of Townshend's army, England would strain every nerve to retrieve her prestige". And so it came to pass. Maude's fresh troops swept up the Tigris, driving the Turks out of Kut in February 1917 and entering Baghdad, the southern capital of the Ottoman Empire, on March 11.

"Crowds of Baghdadis came out to meet us," reported Edmund Candler, the Manchester Guardian's correspondent, "of diverse sects and races. They lined the streets, balconies and roofs, hurrahing and clapping their hands". The troops, "dusty and unshaven", marched into the city "after several days hard fighting. Fighting between the 7th and 10th had been heavy and extraordinary gallantry was shown in crossing the Diala river".

It was the beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire but Maude did not live to see the Turks driven out of Mesopotamia.

On November 19, 1917, he died suddenly from cholera and lies among his men in North Gate.

In one of those ironies thrown up by the passage of time, from his tomb can be seen the red-and-white flag of his former enemy, flying over the Turkish embassy that today overlooks the British cemetery.

However gallant in life, the dead cannot defend themselves or their tenuous grip on immortality - broken headstones, some engraved with pitiful epitaphs, are scattered in the untamed undergrowth, where great regimental names of British military history - the South Wales Borderers, the Dorsetshires and the Buffs - lie in the dust.

Alongside the fallen British are the dead of the empire, called to serve their distant king - waiters, cooks, men of the Indian Labour Corps and sepoys from such proud regiments as the 89th Punjabis, formed in 1798, the 126th Baluchistan Infantry, raised in 1825, and Hodson's Horse, founded during the 1857 rebellion and still in existence today as an armoured regiment in the modern Indian army.

All are quartered in this same "corner of a foreign field" as those who travelled the furthest to meet their end - troopers of the Australian Light Horse.

Some stones, said one local man, who claims he and his father and grandfather before him have maintained the cemetery for many years, were smashed by car bombs on Safi Al din Hilli Street, which runs past the cemetery.

Others, he said, were targeted by a crowd when Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. Whatever the cause, desecration is everywhere. On the edge of an open piece of hard, baked soil, a pair of old trainers and a single flip-flop decorate one smashed stump.

The arms of the cemetery's Cross of Sacrifice have been amputated and in front of the Stone of Remembrance, designed in 1917 by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate "those of all faiths and none", stands a goal mouth.

At North Gate, "Fame's eternal camping ground" doubles as a football pitch.

As with death in war, the destruction appears to have selected its victims at random. Here, the stone commemorating Driver J Moore of the Royal Field Artillery, killed on July 13, 1917, lies in two pieces.

Nearby, that marking the mortal remains of Sepoy Jiwan of the 83rd Wallajahbad Light Infantry, who died on January 22, 1918, remains intact, in formation with the other standing stones that hold their parade-ground ranks among the undergrowth.

Nearby, two headstones that have been snapped off at their roots lean upside down against a wild bush. The first belongs to one of the 2,730 buried here without a name - 842 British and 1,888 Indians, each of whom is recorded only as "A soldier of the Great War, known unto God", in the words chosen by the grieving English poet Rudyard Kipling, whose own son was lost without trace in France in 1915.

The other bears the name of Sapper Herbert Loosemore of the Royal Corps of Signals, who died in March 1921, aged 21. The condition of his stone renders even more poignant that part of the eroded inscription that remains legible: "For us he died - never forgotten."

None of these men, says the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, has been forgotten. Every six months, it pays for an Iraqi contractor to maintain the boundaries and clear the worst of the undergrowth. The last visit was in May this year.

This, says Peter Francis, head of communications at the commission's headquarters in Berkshire, England, is partly "to maintain the cemetery to a standard that we can, with the limitations of working in Iraq at the moment, but also just to make sure we still have a presence in the country to let people know that... we have every intention of returning when the situation on the ground allows".

Maintenance of all 13 sites in Iraq became difficult during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s but continued until the onset of the Gulf War in 1990, he says. "Between hostilities, visits were possible, as was a limited maintenance programme - but the effects of two wars and years of sanctions have left all the cemeteries in need of attention."

In 2008, with the help of British, Iraqi and American forces, some remedial work was carried out at Habbaniya, some 65 kilometres to the west of Baghdad, where 290 Second World War graves lie within the perimeter of a military base.

"We were actually able to bring in new grave markers, rebuild cemetery walls and entrance features," said Mr Francis. "We hope that is going to become the template for the programme once we can roll it out to the rest of the country."

Following "persistent but sensitive efforts by our staff", the Saddam-era authorities gave the go-ahead in 2001 for the commission to begin rehabilitating North Gate.

New headstones, manufactured in Italy, were shipped to Iraq early in 2002 but "the work was stopped when the international situation deteriorated" and the stones remain where they were at the outbreak of hostilities in 2003 - in two red shipping containers outside the cemetery gates.

The scale of the reconstruction task facing the Commission in Iraq, says Francis, "is extensive, but we remain confident that our plans and processes are practical and sustainable for the long term.

"We have not forgotten or abandoned the cemeteries in Iraq. As soon as the situation permits, we will restore them to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those buried and commemorated there."