Mohammed al-Zaidi, Wasit
Thousands of foreign soldiers died in Iraq in one of Britain’s greatest defeats during WW1. Local historians want to better preserve what little remains here.
It is an easy walk to get the cemeteries that overlook the Tigris river, in the city of Kut, in central Iraq. The graves here are old and contain the remains of Turkish and British soldiers who fell during what is known as the Siege of Kut in 1915.
The Turkish Ottoman army besieged the British military’s headquarters in this area and eventually forced the British out. Although many years have passed, the graves remain here, a historical monument to one of the biggest defeats of the British during World War 1.
There were thousands of casualties as the British army tried to relieve troops who had been under siege for months and who were running out of food. According to the Guardian newspaper, “about 1,750 men had died from wounds or disease during the siege. Some 2,600 British and 9,300 Indian other ranks were rounded up [by the Ottoman army after the British surrendered] and marched away. Two-thirds of the British and about a seventh of the Indians never saw their homes again. Relative to the numbers of men involved, the British losses at Kut dwarf those of far bigger battles,” the newspaper concluded.
The Turkish cemetery here, containing the graves of 52 soldiers, is carefully looked after. Dogs may not enter and there are signs telling visitors that they should not exercise in here or write on the walls.
A large wall surrounds the Turkish site and inside the courtyard there is a monument to the Turkish commander of the time. Haider al-Abadi, an elderly local man (and no relation to Iraq’s former prime minister), oversees the Turkish cemetery in cooperation with the Turkish embassy in Baghdad.
“Every grave bears the name of the man killed and the date of his death,” al-Abadi tells visitors proudly. “This gravesite is just one of many belonging to the Ottoman army in Iraq and it gets a lot of care and attention from the Turkish. It is symbolic and special to them,” he told Al Menassa.
The British cemetery sits in less gentile surroundings, in the down-at-heel Kut neighbourhood of Al Jadida. In here, are the last remains of 418 British soldiers. According to a local historian, Muthana Hassan Mahdi, this cemetery used to be a flower garden in which to practice singing, during Iraq’s royal era. “But after relations between Iraq and Britain deteriorated in 1958, after the Iraqi royal regime was overthrown in 1958, conditions here deteriorated,” Mahdi explains.
In 2014, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission restored the cemetery as part of a project to maintain the graves of British soldiers buried outside of the United Kingdom.
It’s incredibly important to preserve sites like this, says Majid Mushir, a professor of oriental studies at the University of Wasit, because it is a way of preserving Iraq’s own history.
Cemeteries like this are a treasure for historians, agrees Talib Al-Waeli, dean of the faculty of arts at the same university. “These graves bear witness,” he concludes.