Second World War graves in Iraq restored to former glory

The damaged graves of more than a hundred Second World War casualties buried in the Iraqi desert have been restored to their former glory after decades of conflict prevented their upkeep.

Habbaniya War Cemetery, 60 miles west of Baghdad, honours 173 Second World War casualties and 117 who died in conflicts in the late 1940s to 1950s.

Since 1990, war and political instability has made it unsafe for staff at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to manage the site.

Following an improvement in the security situation, stonemasons at the CWGC’s operations base in Beaurains, France, began producing nearly 300 white Portland stone headstones in December last year to transport to Iraq.

Local contractors started work on the ground in March, with the stones now installed and the cemetery restoration on the cusp of completion.

Workers prepare Second World War graves r
Workers preparing the ground for nearly 300 new headstones at CWGC’s Habbaniya War Cemetery (CWGC/PA)

Among the soldiers buried there is Lance Corporal William Kirby, born in Liverpool, who died aged 22 during fighting for Fallujah on May 22 1941.

The son of a general labourer and one of eight children, he joined the army at the outbreak of the Second World War and was stationed in India.

He was part of a detachment of 350 men of the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) airlifted to Iraq to reinforce the British garrison at RAF Habbaniya who were under threat from Iraqi nationalist forces, who had been encouraged by the Nazis to destabilise the Allies in the region.

On May 19 1941 a fierce battle began to secure the town of Fallujah, an important strategic crossing point of the Euphrates River on the road to Baghdad.

British forces, fighting against tanks and mortar fire, were eventually able to drive back the Iraqis.

Lance Corporal Kirby was one of 18 men from his regiment killed on the same day.

His and his fallen comrades’ graves have gradually deteriorated over time due to the high salt content in the Iraqi ground.

Worker prepares Second World War graves in Iraq
The cemetery honours 173 Second World War casualties (CWGC/PA)

If stonework is not properly maintained it becomes dried out and can crumble.

Habbaniya War Cemetery sits inside what is now an Iraqi air base, making it a more secure location to begin repairs.

Safety concerns led to the CWGC placing its operations in the country on hold for decades, save for brief periods where repairs were possible.

In its absence from Iraq, the CWGC created two commemorative books that form the Iraq Roll of Honour which contain more than 54,000 names.

The CWGC is committed to maintaining 23,000 memorial and cemetery sites around the world, helping to commemorate 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead.

Iraq represents its fifth largest commitment, where 51,000 casualties from the First World War and 3,000 from the Second World War are commemorated.

CWGC staff maintain sites from the battlefields of France and Flanders, Belgium, to countries such as Egypt and Canada.

The organisation has recently launched its To The Four Corners campaign to highlight its global work.

Visitors to its website will be able to read staff diaries, take virtual tours of cemeteries and read stories from the CWGC archives.

Victoria Wallace, director general of the CWGC, said: “Our teams reach some very remote locations in their care for war graves, and it is an endless task of which we are hugely proud – and that we will never give up.”

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