Seabees Restore British Cemetery in Iraq

Story Number: NNS030527-05Release Date: 5/28/2003 3:25:00 AM
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By Marine Col. Michael C. Howard, First Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group Operations

AL KUT, Iraq (NNS) -- A unique ceremony took place recently in the old Iraqi town of Al Kut, featuring a distinguished collection of senior military officers.

The event included U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, Commanding General I Marine Expeditionary Force and Brig. Gen. Richard E. Natanski, Commanding General Task Force Tarawa; British Maj. Gen. Robin Brims, Commanding General 1st U.K. Armoured Division; and the U.S. Navy Seabees' Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, Commander, I Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group and Commander 1st Naval Construction Division/Naval Construction Forces Command.

They and others participated in a rededication ceremony of an old World War I British military cemetery. The ceremony took place in an old part of the city on a lot occupied by 420 British graves dating back to 1914-1918. Also present were senior representatives of the British military chaplains and the Church of England.

The area was packed with U.S. Marines, British soldiers, Al Kut city officials and local Iraqi townspeople, making for a pleasant gathering of old allies and new friends. All were focused on honoring men who came to this area almost a century before and who made the ultimate sacrifice in fighting the Ottoman Turks, setting the foundation for Iraqi freedom.

Lost to history today, Great Britain fought a long and protracted military campaign in Iraq known as the British Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I (WWI). From the fall of 1914 through the fall of 1918, some 80,000 casualties were sustained by the British Army, of which 30,000 died. Of these, estimates are that 15,000 were deaths resulting from combat, while the other 15,000 were attributed to disease, mainly cholera.

One of Britain's setbacks in the campaign was the loss of its entire 6th Division following an arduous siege by the Turkish Army here at Al Kut. Greatly outnumbered by the enemy in April 1916, the British unit was forced to surrender when it completely ran out of supplies. From Kut, the Turks forced the British (and many Indian Army) prisoners to march back to Baghdad. Most of the 10,000 prisoners did not survive the ordeal in 120-degree heat with little food and water. The Kut cemetery thus stood for decades as a memorial to the tragic reality of men pursuing their duty despite insurmountable odds.

Though the Kut British Military Cemetery was maintained for years by the British War Graves Commission and members of the local Kut community, the area was ordered desecrated and turned into a city dump by Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party in 1991. This was simply punishment for Britain aligning herself with the United States in the first Gulf War.

With the recent capture and occupation of Al Kut by Marine Corps forces of Task Force Tarawa, a group of Marines and the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133 Seabees from Task Force Charlie of the Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group organized a clean-up and repair effort to restore the cemetery. Their motivation was to acknowledge the previous sacrifices of fellow warriors and to thank Britain for standing closely by the United States in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Seabee contribution by NMCB-133 focused on the unique reconstruction of the central memorial in the cemetery. This included re-fabricating the original steel cross that was mounted in masonry. Under the skillful expertise of Builder 3rd Class Clifford Ainsworth and Steelworker 3rd Class Kevin Lynch, a beautiful new and structurally strong cross was made and remounted. A brass plaque was attached to the backside of the memorial commemorating the occasion.

It was indeed a powerful, poignant moment when attendees snapped to attention, the British Army bagpiper played "God Save the Queen," and the Union Jack was hoisted up the pole behind the memorial. Brims graciously acknowledged the heartfelt gestures of the Americans and the unique bond shared as allied nations committed to freedom.

Nothing marked the occasion better than the WWI quote by John Maxwell, now clearly inscribed on the Al Kut memorial.

"When you go home, Tell them of us, and say; For your tomorrow, We gave our today."

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Engineering Aid 2nd Class Ji Lee, from Alexandria, Va., hands out candy to local children from within the Al Kut Cemetery
030504-N-2517J-002 Al Kut, Iraq (May 4, 2003) -- Engineering Aide 2nd Class Ji Lee from Alexandria, Va., hands out candy to local children from within the Al Kut Cemetery. U.S. Navy Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion One Thirty Three (NMCB-133) are restoring the cemetery that is the resting place of British soldiers who died during World War One. The project shows respect for the families of our comrades who fought beside us in recent operations. NMCB-133 is in Iraq to provide construction support and provide humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jacob Johnson.
May 21, 2003
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