Unarmed Combat

Richard Usborne

  • The Anglo-French Clash in Lebanon and Syria, 1940-1945 by A.B. Gaunson
    Macmillan, 233 pp, £29.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 333 40221 9
  • Personal Patchwork 1939-1945 by Bryan Guinness
    Cygnet, 260 pp, £9.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 907435 06 8
  • Staff Officer: The Diaries of Lord Moyne 1914-1918 edited by Brian Bond
    Leo Cooper, 256 pp, £17.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 85052 053 3

When France fell in the summer of 1940, practically all Arabs of the Levant were sure that the Axis would win the war. This would probably free their countries, Syria and Lebanon, from the French mandates under which they had lived resentfully since 1920. But then an Italian Armistice Commission turned up in Beirut (one of its members brought his grand piano). That their future overlord would be Italy was not a pretty thought for the Levantines. Meanwhile, on Pétains orders, the French bureaucrats went on with their jobs, and the French Army of the Levant, their weaponry unused and intact, remained the ruling power.

As history would have it, Britain, with Russia, America, Free France and others, won the war. But in the spring of 1941, while Wavell was fighting the Germans in the Western Desert and in Greece, and the German-supported Rashid Ali rebellion in Iraq, Allied strategy demanded that the Vichy-controlled Levant be sanitised – kept quiet and safe from the Germans. Give the Germans a chance and they would establish themselves there, within bombing distance of the Canal. De Gaulle was begging Churchill to let the Free French go into the Levant and bring it in, with its prize of thirty thousand good colonial troops, under the so-far gossamer Croix de Lorraine flag. Then the news came that German planes were using Syrian and Lebanese airfields on their way to Iraq, and Syria was sending arms to Iraq from Aleppo. Churchill ordered Wavell to clean out the Levant. On 8 June, ‘Jumbo’ Wilson sent another shoestring army over the frontiers from Iraq and Palestine. After a month of far-from-token Vichy resistance, Syria and Lebanon were in Allied control and French soldiers of both sides lay buried in a communal cemetery outside Damascus, morts pour la France.

Vichy’s General de Verdilhac signed Wilson’s armistice terms. De Gaulle’s General Catroux, ‘well bred and unfailingly polite’, was at the table, but not asked to sign. Australian troops, who had fought hard battles up the west coast from Palestine, fused the lights and the discussions went on for a period in the lights of motorcycles. The Australians had a record of merriment after the fighting: they had pinched Catroux’s gold-encrusted képi on another occasion, and the band-conductor’s baton at an open-air reception for de Gaulle. And they had a grand punch-up with Free French Foreign Legionnaires in Beirut.

De Gaulle took the back-bench position given to Catroux, and the terms of the armistice Wilson had imposed on the defeated Vichy troops, as a double insult: why did the British say the Levant was now in ‘Allied’ control? Syria and Lebanon had been under French control, and France would go on with the controlling now, thank you. The British would help them, of course, with their troops, equipment and money. But the French flag would fly over the Grands Sérails in Damascus and Beirut. It’s true that there had been talk since 1936 of France letting the Syrians and Lebanese have their independence, under some sort of treaty such as the British had with Iraq or Egypt, but they would look after that when the time came. Such fighting as there was in Syria and Lebanon over the next four years took the form of unarmed combat, increasingly bad-tempered, between the British and their Free French allies.

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