When U.S. Marines assumed control of the town of Kut on the banks of the Tigris, they discovered a mass grave. But unlike the other such discoveries which are tragically common in Iraq, this grave was not concealed, its 420 occupants not anonymous. They were members of the British 6th (Poona) Division, who had been part of an invading force operating against Ottoman Turkish troops in one of the forgotten fronts of the First World War.
The British invasion plan bore some resemblance to Operation Iraqi Freedom. They occupied Basra in 1914, shortly after Turkey entered the war as a German ally, and an aggressive British commander, Sir John Nixon, decided to push his troops, a mixed group of British and Indian soldiers under the command of Major General Charles Townshend, all the way to Baghdad. But the forces at Townshend’s disposal were too few and their supply lines tenuous. He fought to within 25 miles of Baghdad, brilliantly defeating a larger Turkish army at Ctesiphon (near Salman Pak), but in so doing depleting his own strength to the point where he had to withdraw. He only made it about a third of the way back when he was overtaken by a German-led Turkish force four times the size of his own. Townshend and his more than 10,000 troops, weary of their flight and weakened by disease, made their stand at a mud village named Kut.
The ensuing siege lasted 147 days. Relief forces from Basra were stopped by the Turks, who had taken positions south of the city to prevent a breakthrough. Supplies sent upriver were run aground or halted by chains stretched across the Tigris. Attempts were even made to parachute in supplies, in an early use of logistical airpower, but this too failed. Still, the perimeter held. In April 1916, with his men sick and starving, Townshend was permitted to open negotiations for surrender. The War Office sent two regional experts: Aubrey Herbert, a member of parliament, poet, and recent Gallipoli veteran; and T. E. Lawrence, then new to Mesopotamia, who described the siege as “a slow-drawn agony.” In two days of negotiations they failed to come to terms with the Turks; Enver Pasha saw more value in humiliating the British than in the millions of pounds they offered in exchange for the freedom of the besieged. So on April 29, Tonwshend surrendered his command unconditionally. It was the largest capitulation of British troops then seen. Despite their privations, the force had suffered only 227 British and 204 Indian deaths. The survivors were made Ottoman prisoners. Townshend was fairly well treated by his captors, but the rest were brutalized, forced to march to Baghdad, and then into the Ottoman interior. Thousands died, and those who survived were pressed into slave labor, where thousands more succumbed.
The scale of this tragedy was immense; in contemporary terms, it is unimaginable. Compare to it to Gulf War Two, when impressionable commentators began sweating when Coalition forces were temporarily inconvenienced by untrained Iraqi thugs in the rear areas taking pot shots from pickup trucks, and progress was slowed for a few days by a sandstorm. Some in this country were ready to begin negotiations. But compared to the recent mass slaughter of Gallipoli or what was soon to follow at the Somme, Kut was business as usual.
The gravesite at Kut was maintained by the British War Graves Commission, and is one of four in Iraq. Some of them, such as the cemetery in Baghdad, also contain the bodies of Turkish soldiers, whose remains were buried with military honors by their former foes. In 1991, Saddam Hussein, as punishment for British participation in the first Gulf War, blocked funding for the upkeep of the graves. The local caretaker in Kut died. The burial ground fell into disrepair. Tombstones were broken, or stolen for building materials. Locals began to use the site as a garbage pit. Children made part of the cemetery into a soccer pitch. By the time the Marines arrived, the graveyard was an overgrown, stinking ruin.
As a symbol of respect for our allies, U.S. forces, civilian volunteers and paid locals set about restoring the Kut cemetery. They mowed the grass, pulled weeds, righted and repaired the headstones — some carved in English, some in Sanskrit — where they could. They moved out the garbage, which was chest high in spots, along with dead trees and animal carcasses. They mapped the locations of the burial sites, and fixed the graffiti-covered gate. “We would like this to be a place of rest,” one of the officers said.
The Marines worked at the task for two weeks. The cemetery was rededicated May 8 in a combined ceremony presided over by Major General Robin Brims, commander of the 1st (United Kingdom) Armored Division. Officers and men, British and American, entered the cemetery to the sound of bagpipes. Some British soldiers were members of the same units noted on the tombstones. In his remarks, General Brim paid tribute not only to those who had died almost nine decades ago, but also to those members of the Coalition who had given their lives in the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Union Jack was hoisted. It was a civilizing moment in a country long unused to such gestures.
I would prefer to end my story here, but I have to report an unfortunate coda. Two weeks after the rededication of the cemetery at Kut, it again lies in ruins. The British flag was torn down and burned, the flagpole bent. Tombstones now lay broken, or serve as targets for children hurling dung. Petulant residents claim that they were offended by the flag, that it was a “symbol of occupation.” They say that too much effort was put into restoring the cemetery when they are going without food, electricity, and their streets are unsafe — this after some of them took money to assist in the restoration. The frustration was voiced by Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Zangas, of the Marine 4th Civil Affairs Group, who said, “We were real proud of our efforts to restore it and now it’s just been trashed again, which makes me and a whole lot of people so angry.” If anything, this sorry episode shows that the Coalition has a long way to go to build civil society in Iraq. It can only be seen as ironic as our forces assist Iraqis in finding the secret pits where Saddam Hussein attempted to bury the evidence of his inhumanity. And this is a useful reminder why it is U.S. policy to bring the remains of our fallen home. For my part, I recommend that the British government set aside a part of the funds which would have gone as handouts to these ingrates to relocate the graves to Britain and India. I think that the residents of the proud riverfront metropolis of Kut have demonstrated that they do not deserve to be one of those corners of a foreign field that is forever England. Dare I say, it was the unkindest Kut of all.