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My grandfather died for his country; he deserves better, says Pembury man

By Alan Smith

Across the country, the gravestones and memorials of those who gave their lives in the First World War have been spruced up for the centenary commemorations.

But there are some fallen heroes who currently have no marker to record their sacrifice.

Away from the Western Front, one theatre of war where the Allies suffered many casualties was in Mesopotamia.

Peter Cook with his grandfather's medals
Peter Cook with his grandfather's medals

Today the ancient name for the region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is largely forgotten, but that’s no reason why the 92,000 Commonwealth troops who died there should be.

Peter Cook, of The Grove, Pembury, is concerned about the last resting place of his grandfather Charles Cook and his comrades from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents.

Charles, the son of Benjamin and Fanny Cook, and husband to Elizabeth, lived at 6 Queens Road, Maidstone, and worked for Maidstone Corporation, before enlisting for the Great War.

He was despatched to Mesopotamia with the Second Battalion, where he died of wounds in the Baghdad Military Hospital on May 10, 1916.

LCpl Cook was 35.

The 1916 picture of Lance Corporal Charles Cook's grave in Baghdad
The 1916 picture of Lance Corporal Charles Cook's grave in Baghdad

He was buried in Row G, plot 6, at the British North Gate War Cemetery in the city, which is now the capital of Iraq.

And that’s where the problem lies.

For years, starting with the Iran-Iraq war and then continuing with the two Gulf Wars, the area has been too dangerous for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to properly maintain the cemetery.

Bombs, rocket attacks and even a car bomb have destroyed many headstones. Others have been subject to vandalism or simply decayed in the blistering heat.

Peter Cook said: “I hate to think of my grandfather lying there, abandoned in an unmarked grave.”

Two years ago he wrote a personal appeal to the Duke of Kent, who is president of the CWGC, but even he was unable to assist. His aide responded saying: “The situation is most unsatisfactory. Work at this cemetery poses significant security risks to CWGC staff. Attacks are a daily fact of life.”

Fortunately, the situation has now improved.

Some of the newly erected headstones at the British North Gate Cemetery in Baghdad
Some of the newly erected headstones at the British North Gate Cemetery in Baghdad

Commission spokesman Peter Francis said: “The security situation enforced the Commission’s absence. But we have now been making significant progress.

“We’re erected 511 headstones with new concrete bases at North Gate Cemetery, as well as repairing the boundary fence.

“It is our intention to erect a further 500 headstones in due course.

“In addition, there is a now twice yearly major cleaning operation undertaken at the cemetery.

“Mr Cook should rest assured that it is our intention to restore the cemeteries and memorials to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those buried and commemorated in Iraq as soon as possible.”

There are 4,160 Commonwealth casualties from the First World War buried in Baghdad.

The CWGC is maintaining a book of remembrance with their names, which can be viewed by the public, at its head office in Maidenhead.

Mr Cook, 68, said: “It would be nice if there were a plaque to them here in Maidstone. The West Kents were the town’s own regiment after all.”

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