On an Iraq business trip, driving from Qurna to Basra, our Personal Security Detail made a small diversion to show us a monument in the desert. We got out and had a walk around and took some photos.
It only took about 40 minutes in total but I was intrigued by the monument. Specifically, what was a large monument to British soldiers doing in the middle of nowhere? Was it on the scene of a famous battle? Did a garrison once stand there?
I wasn’t surprised that there was a monument, the British have fought incessantly on every continent in the world except Antartica. It was just, well, why the hell was it in a remote location? Most of the names were Indian and the references were to Indian regiments.
I had noticed that many of the stones in the monument had numbers on them, a sign that it had been rebuilt at some point.
I spent some time researching the monument and, although it’s reasonably well known, it was difficult to find specific details. Most searches came up with the British Graveyard in Basra which was rediscovered as part of the Coalition Forces occupation of the area. But there were a few people who could be contacted who knew bits and pieces to allow me to knit together what happened.
The monument is to the British soldiers killed in The Mesopotamian Campaign during the Great War of 1914-1918. The campaign started on the 29th September, only 60 days after the British declared war on Germany (4th August 1914). Two Royal Navy ships sailed up the Persian Gulf then entered the Shatt Al-Arab (no doubt the name gave much amusement to the ratings on board) and headed up to Muhammerah.
Muhammerah is now known as Khurramshahr and is on the Iranian side of the Iraq/Iran border. The Shatt Al-Arab was created in 960 AD by digging a channel to flow the Karun river into the delta created by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates – the two rivers that gave Mesopotamia it’s name (The Land Between Two Rivers).
A short 17 days later, after the ships arrived, an advance party from the Indian Expeditionary Force arrived in Bahrain then invaded South Mesopotamia on the 6th November. On 12th November the rest of the IEF turned up and a major thrust by the British to capture the oilfields and pipelines around Basra was underway.
The area, indeed the whole of Mesopotamia at that time, was occupied by the Turks as an adjunct to the Ottoman Empire. They had been there for a couple of hundred years. Since Turkey was an ally of Germany and the Germans actually ran the Turkish Army, they were seen as a legitimate target by the British Government.
But what happened next had a significant impact on the outcome of the Great War.
The original brief of the IEF was to capture the oilfields and secure the supply of fuel for the Royal Navy. The IEF fought up through the desert, which at that time was a quagmire due to torrential rain, took Basra City (an island in the middle of a flooded plain) that had been abandoned by the Turkish Army then up to Qurna (pronounced Gurna) where the Turks had regrouped.
On 6th December Qurna fell to the British Army and the oilfields were considered to be secured. But this victory, small in relation to what was to come in the killing fields of France and Belgium, had a great significance to the British Government. The relative ease with which the Turkish forces were defeated (2000 Turks dead v 650 British) led the British to open another front against the Germans that would drive up through Mesopotamia. Considering that the Qurna fell only 124 days after the declaration of war it was a key victory right at the start of the war.
The British erected the War Memorial to the fallen of the Mesopotamian Campaign in the area that became the docks in Basra. In 1991, on the orders of Saddam Hussein, the monument was relocated to Berjasiya.
When things settle down and I can go there as a tourist I’ll have another look round and hopefully photograph all of the nameplates.