The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has restored the graves of hundreds of British and Commonwealth service personnel buried at in a cemetery 60 miles west of Baghdad, Iraq.
Habbaniya War Cemetery had stood damaged for decades, the victim of corrosion in a harsh desert environment. However, the security situation deteriorated to such an extent that for nearly 30 years it was too unsafe to continue maintenance or restorative work. However, the CWGC has now completed the installation of 289 brand new headstones, with restorative work to replace the Cross of Sacrifice, repair the walls and to landscape the entire cemetery ongoing.
An important transport hub during the Second World War, Habbaniya is a former RAF station that was ideally located as a stop between British-administered territories in the Middle East and North Africa, and the USSR. Several squadrons also passed through in transit between theatres in the West onto the Far East, and vice-versa. The war cemetery was created within the grounds of the air base.
While largely out of the way of the fighting, the base was besieged in 1941 following a coup d’état against the Iraqi government. A small group of mostly trainee airmen stationed there found themselves defending against anti-British Iraqi forces encouraged by the Nazis to destabilise the British presence in the region.
Supporting the medley of armed trainers and obsolete aircraft was a garrison of 2,200 personnel, including 350 men from an understrength battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), a large RAF contingent, and several companies of locally recruited Assyrian Levies.
In addition to defending the Habbaniya from the substantial rebel force the British were also able to push back, advancing into nearby Fallujah and, with reinforcement, onto Baghdad.
The CWGC tends to the graves of 1.7m Commonwealth dead from the First and Second World Wars in more than 150 countries and territories. Habbaniya is one of 23,000 locations where the CWGC continues to maintain and the cemetery contains the graves of 290 service personnel, 173 of whom were killed in the Second World War.
Most of these casualties were from the RAF, and among their number are 10 Polish and 1 Norwegian foreign nationals. The remaining 117 graves belong to post-war RAF casualties. The British withdrew from Habbaniya in 1959.
Since 1990, CWGC’s efforts in Iraq – the organisation’s fifth largest commitment, with more than 54,000 war graves from both World Wars – had been largely placed on hold. The 2012 restoration of the CWGC cemetery at Kut being one of just a handful of rare occasions where maintenance and repairs have been possible.
Whenever the CWGC are unable to access a grave or cemetery for an extended period, options will be sought for an alternative commemoration such as a Roll of Honour or memorial. Accordingly, a special Iraq Roll of Honour, two commemorative books containing the 54,000 names were created and put on public display at CWGC’s head office.
It is an endless task of which we are hugely proud – and that we will never give up
Habbaniya War Cemetery sits inside what is now an Iraqi Air Force base, making it a more secure location. New headstones, made of white Portland stone, were engraved in Beaurains, France and have now been installed in Iraq with the help of local partners. The works began in April 2019 and are nearing completion. Plans continue to be developed for how CWGC can make a safe and sustainable return to other sites in the country.
Victoria Wallace, Director General of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: “I am delighted that we are at last able to start work to replace the headstones in cemeteries in Iraq. There is still a long way to go, but with Habbaniya and Kut now restored, we can start to look at the others. 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.” ∎
To The Four Corners
As the CWGC’s work to remember the fallen continues into its second century, its perpetual commitment relies on a vast network of thousands of local partners, volunteers and staff to ensure that the hundreds of thousands who died in Commonwealth service have fitting, permanent reminders of their sacrifice.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the first Remembrance Day, the CWGC has launched To The Four Corners, an online adventure that visits some of the remarkable and isolated locations tended to by the organisation.
To The Four Corners will give new access to these amazing places, including jungles, deserts, and well inside the Arctic Circle, through video diaries from hard-to-reach locations, virtual tours and stories from the CWGC’s UNESCO-recognised archive.
To find out more visit: fourcorners.cwgc.org or search #ToTheFourCorners on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.