Sunday, 9 November 2008


I'm just back from the Remembrance service at the Cenotaph - in fact the march has just stoppped going past the Westminster office window. I try to go every year, in memory of my father, a Royal Navy rating, and the generation who fought in WWII.

I'm always amazed by numbers who turn out and by the huge sacrifice individuals and communities have made over the years. Trevor Royle, who wrote in “The Flowers of the Forest” about the effect WWI had on Scotland, tells me that the highest proportion of British volunteers in the Great War came from the Western Isles.

Home on Lewis last week I was scrolling through the Roll of Honour for the district of Point and came across the name of Lieutenant John MacLeod, who came from 19 Swordale, the croft next door to our own.

I've written about how war affected 19 Swordale before. The first buff telegram that came to the village in WWII, informing a family of the death of a beloved son, Murdo MacKenzie, came to that address.

That was a story that we heard growing up but with the history of the Great War dominated on Lewis by the Iolaire disaster on New Year's Eve 1919 we knew little of the people who fought in “Cogaidh an Kaiser”.

My eyes alighted on Lieutenant MacLeod's name not just because of where he had left from but where he died in January 1916 - Basra.

Lieutenant John MacLeod: 1st Seaforth Highlanders. Date of death: 7 January 1916 at the age of 42. Killed in action in Mesopotamia. Memorial: BasraMemorial reference: Panel 37 and 64Lewis Memorial: Point (Garrabost)

If you thought that British strategic interests in oil and in Iraq, where we still have 4000 soldiers in harm's way, think again. When I looked through other records I found that many other young Lewismen lost their lives in Mesopotamia, the place know as modern day Iraq.

There are, for example, two from my mother's home village of Tong - Malcolm MacDonald and Malcolm Finlayson - who died there and are remembered on the Basra war memorial.

Lieutenant MacLeod was the uncle of the late Kenneth MacLeod, “Am Bowan”, who was himself a kind uncle to us village boys. I don't know the details of his service with the 1st Seaforth Highlanders, although a visit to the Records Office in Kew would solve that, but I have been able to find out about the campaign in which he died.

The British sent a military detachment to protect Abadan, one of the world's earliest oil refineries, against the Ottoman Turks in 1915 as some of its warships had already stopped being fuelled by coal.

The British took Basra early in the Mesopotamian Campaign but it was when they attempted to march on Baghdad, led by General Charles Townshend, in September 1915 they were stopped by an Ottoman force about 25 miles south of the city. Withdrawing to Kut, on a U bend in the river Tigris seems to have been a mistake. While the city could be defended it could not be resupplied.

In the long siege that followed many attempts were made to lift the siege. Some 23,000 British and Indian soldiers died in the attempts to retake Kut, probably the worst loss of life for the British away from the European theatre. It was, according to the histories, a grim slaughter against a backdrop of heat, sand, marshes and mosquitos.

Townshend, with some 8,000 surviving soldiers, finally surrendered Kut in April 1916 by which time John MacLeod and many others must have laid dead in the sands of Iraq. Kut was re-conquered the following year. The names of the dead, on memorials across Britain, are also inscribed on the Basra Memorial which itself has an interesting recent history.

Until 1997 the Basra Memorial was located on the main quay of the naval dockyard at Maqil, on the west bank of the Shatt-al-Arab, about 8 kilometres north of Basra. Because of the sensitivity of the site, the memorial was moved by Saddam's presidential decree, and considerable expense, and relocated 32 kilometres along the road to Nasiriyah, in the middle of what was a major battleground during the first Gulf War. Again, Trevor Royle tells me that the Commonwealth Graves Commission has been able to carry out some restorative work in Iraq recently.

Lest we forget, the Basra Memorial commemorates more than 40,500 members of the Commonwealth forces who died in Mesopotamia from the Autumn of 1914 to the end of August 1921 and whose graves are not known.

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