My memories of the fallen on our new battlefields

IRAQ, 2003

BRITISH WAR CEMETERY, BASRA

I jumped down from the turret of the Warrior, and squeezed through the rusty gate and entrance arch of Basra’s British War Cemetery. A large walled plot lay ahead, filled with rubble, rubbish, spiky bushes and wild dogs. I wondered where the graves were.

Below my boots lay fragments of broken headstones and inscriptions, an RAF pilot killed in 1920, a seaman killed in 1943.

A local Iraqi explained how Iranian artillery hit it many times in the 1980s, followed by looting of the lead lettering and stone in the 1990s and years of neglect.

It dawned on me that what felt like a thoroughly modern war was merely the latest in a long history of British conflicts. 2,551 dead from the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force who took Basra in 1914, and again, British troops stormed ashore in 1941.

We sat in silence, and lost in thought, for the short drive back to the bombed Baath Party headquarters.

AFGHANISTAN, 2006, 2010

BRITISH CEMETERY, KABUL

The padre and commanding officer of the Royal Gloucester Berkshire Wiltshire Light Infantry (RGBWLI) crossed to a patch of newly painted white wall in the British Cemetery. They held up the memorial stone for one of their soldiers killed in an ambush, to confirm where it would be sited, next to other recent plaques. The cemetery sits on the British Cantonment from the second Afghan war. Captain John Cook, VC was buried here in 1879 but mostly it contains the graves of European residents up to the 1970s.

The elderly caretaker, who had remained and continued to care for the plot during the Taliban rule, graciously took the money that the colonel offered and we all climbed back in the Land Rovers and sat in silence for the drive back to the Britfor (British Forces) headquarters.

I returned in 2010 and although saddened at the old man’s death, I was pleased to see his son had taken over. An injection of money from the British Embassy has seen all the names of British servicemen killed in Afghanistan since 2001 inscribed in stone. An ominously large space of the stone is left free for further additions.
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