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Finding Private Bell: a grave that leads deep into Iraq's bloody past

6 10 0
08.05.2019

This is the story of an elderly lady in Lincolnshire, a long-dead Scottish shepherd and a kindly Shia Muslim in southern Iraq. First, the lady. Moira Jennings, who is now 87, wrote to me from her home in England when I was covering the aftermath of the disastrous – and illegal – 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. We would exchange letters several times in the coming years. But her words are more eloquent than mine:

“My Grandfather was killed on 22nd April 1916 and is buried in Amara War Cemetery, Iraq. He was in the Black Watch, left the farm in Scotland where he was a Shepherd and never returned, as did so many men in the First World War. As a child I spent a lot of time with my Grandmother who had my Grandfather’s medals in a frame on her wall. I asked her about them and she told me he had been killed in Mesopotamia by the Turks. To a child this made a lasting impression on my mind and I’ve tried to find out more.”

Private David Cameron Bell of the 2nd Battalion, the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), came from Fife – his parents were called Henry and Catherine, that much we know – and his wife, Moira’s grandmother, was called Annie (originally Annie Anderson). She was from Frithfield, Anstruther, which is also in Fife.

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Moira Jennings, a canny lady whose articulate fury at the Bush-Blair invasion matched her horror at the bloodshed of the Great War which ended 14 years before she was herself born, knows the story of what was “Mesopotamia” all too well. When he was killed, Private Bell was already 41 – a truly “old soldier” by the standards of the Great War in which my own father fought in France (and survived) at the age of just 19.

In a series of military actions, the British – including thousands of Indian troops – fought their way up the Tigris river towards Baghdad in 1915, but were finally surrounded by the Ottoman Turks on a plateau of land between Kut and Amara under their self-satisfied but ineffectual general, Charles Townshend.

Despite efforts by Lawrence of Arabia and others to bribe the Turks to release the British army, the trapped soldiers were reduced, under constant shellfire, to eating horses, and even rats to survive. In the reduced front line, cholera broke out. There were desertions, and when Townshend finally surrendered on 29 April 1916 around 4,000 British dead were packed into the Amara cemetery beside the fetid waters of the Tigris. It has rightly been called........

© Independent