'Gentle steps forward' in restoring Mosul's Commonwealth war cemetery

There have been "gentle steps forward" in the effort to repair the war cemetery in Mosul, following years of ISIS occupation. Iraq's second-largest city spent three years under Islamic State's brutal rule and many of its buildings were destroyed, including its war cemetery. 

When the occupation came to an end in 2017, it was estimated that 90% of the cemetery was damaged. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission oversees the site, along with 23,000 others around the world. The commission said the Cross Of Sacrifice and the memorials were ruined, with only some external walls surviving, but thankfully, the remains of those buried were not disturbed. 

In recent weeks, the commission has been working with local contractors, international agencies and British diplomats to take "gentle steps forward" in the site's restoration. The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has completed a sweep of the grounds to remove unexploded ordnance left behind by those who had occupied the cemetery in recent years. 

The next step is a site survey and a review of how to clear debris and secure the cemetery's boundaries. The progress in Mosul is part of the CWGC's long-term strategy to clear and secure all of its Iraqi sites and then to repair and rebuild them when it is safe. A CWGC spokesperson told Sky News: "The CWGC has noted that local conditions are now stabilising in Mosul and it has a window of opportunity to re-establish to site. 

"In addition, it has the excellent support of the UK Consul, UNMAS, and the opportunity to engage a local workforce to assist with the gradual clearance and rehabilitation. "The commission has rebuilt cemeteries before after serious damage caused by conflict - it is within the CWGC's capability to do so." There are more than 54,000 Commonwealth war casualties in Iraq. Of the countries where the CWGC works, only France, the UK, Belgium, and India have higher numbers. 

But for many years, the commission was unable to have a presence in Iraq due to safety concerns: the last working visit by staff was in 2006. As Iraq became more unstable, the condition of its war cemeteries deteriorated - the region's soil has a very high salt content which means that regular maintenance is required to stop stonework from crumbling - and the site in Mosul was already in disrepair when ISIS arrived. 

Rich Hills, CWGC's area director with overall responsibility for operations in Iraq, said Mosul War Cemetery had been a "difficult site for us to maintain for many years and, unfortunately, the cemetery has sustained serious damage in that time". But he confirmed that, with the clearance of all ordnance left by previous occupiers, it is now safe for further technical inspections. 

"Our current policy in Iraq is to clear and secure our sites when safe and practical to do so, as we await an opportunity for a more sustainable return," he told Sky News. "CWGC will slowly and steadily begin to rehabilitate Mosul War Cemetery as it has done in other parts of the country such as Basra, Kut and Habbaniya." 

Kut War Cemetery was completely renovated in 2012 during a gap in hostilities, and Habbaniya was restored in 2019, with nearly 300 new headstones installed. Mr Hills added: "We would also like to reassure those connected to all the Commonwealth casualties buried and commemorated across our sites in Iraq, that our commitment to the fallen remains in perpetuity." 

Between 1914 and 1918, British and Indian troops fought against the Ottoman Turks in what was then called Mesopotamia. Mosul was the headquarters for the Turkish Sixth Army and it was entered by Commonwealth forces in early November 1918 under the terms of the Armistice with Turkey. There are 191 burials from the First World War at Mosul War Cemetery - all of them are Indian forces and only six of them are identified. 

The site also has a memorial to one British casualty buried at the time in a vault at the town's French Dominican Church. During the Second World War, Mosul was occupied by Commonwealth forces from June 1941 until the end of the conflict. 

The cemetery was expanded for the burial of men who died through illness or accident while serving with PAIFORCE (Persia and Iraq Force) and after the war, graves were brought into this permanent cemetery from Mosul Civil Cemetery, Kirkuk British Military Cemetery, and Kirkuk Muhammadan Cemetery, where maintenance was not possible. 

There are 145 Second World War burials at Mosul - from Australia, Canada, India, and the UK, as well as two non-war graves and 13 non-war consular burials. 

by Sharon Marris

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