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.

Churchill’s man with de Gaulle was Major General Edward Louis Spears, half-English, half-Irish by birth, French by upbringing and education, a career British cavalryman whose two languages (he had also qualified as an Army Interpreter in German), courage (four times wounded) and temperament had made him a name as a front-line liaison officer between the British Expeditionary forces and the French Armies from the very first days of the First World War up to May 1917. In 1915 when the failure of ‘his’ Dardanelles expedition had lost him his Cabinet seat, Churchill had gone back to soldiering. He had been offered the command of a brigade on the now entrenched Western Front, and had tried unsuccessfully to get this brilliant young French-speaking officer to be his brigade major. Churchill had written to Clemmie, ‘I like him very much and he is entirely captivated,’ and in October 1916 he was writing to ‘My dear Louis’, who was recuperating after his last wound, in very fulsome words:

I cannot tell you how much I admire and reverence the brilliant and noble service you are doing and have done for the country. You are indeed a Paladin worthy to rank with the truest knights of the great days of romance. Thank God you are alive ... I am going to bestir myself in your interest – if my credit is of any value with the ruling powers.

And that was what happened, for the next twenty-five years. Churchill levered Spears into politics, first as National Liberal Member for Loughborough, next as Conservative Member for Carlisle. In his wilderness years, Churchill used Spears as his informant about and interpreter of the French. In 1938, Chamberlain took sharp exception to Churchill and Spears going suddenly to France together to confer with the anti-appeasers there. And Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister, objected to being rung up by Spears, on Churchill’s behalf, asking for political information.

When Churchill had become the ruling power himself, Spears became his man with Reynaud. He had flown back from Bordeaux with de Gaulle in June 1940 as Pétain was asking the Germans for an armistice, and Churchill had put him to work to look after de Gaulle and help him establish the Free French. He had ridden roughshod over Whitehall bureaucracy, and lost several friends, on de Gaulle’s behalf. They had sailed together on the ill-fated Dakar expedition and returned crestfallen. Whosever fault that failure was – the Vichy battleships being allowed through the Gibraltar straits from Toulon, the fog over Dakar harbour – Churchill did not blame de Gaulle or Spears.

From the start, however, de Gaulle was not going to be, or be seen as, under Churchill’s orders or on Spears’s leading strings. In fact, he and Spears came to dislike each other personally and distrust each other politically. In the aftermath of the Allied-Vichy armistice in the Levant, de Gaulle was asking Churchill to get Spears off the back of the Free French, and Spears was suggesting that Catroux might be a good replacement for de Gaulle as Free French leader. Spears had been with Oliver Lyttelton, Minister of State in Cairo, when de Gaulle had stormed in and said he was pulling the Free French out completely from the alliance with Britain, and Spears had had serious doubts about de Gaulle’s sanity. But to de Gaulle’s requests, and similar occasional requests from his own Foreign Office, Churchill, pleased with its resonance, repeated his riposte, ‘Louis Spears has many enemies, but he has one friend.’

After Germany invaded Russia, the Levant became of less and less importance to the world war effort as the Allies focused their binoculars on Europe and France itself. Spears’s continued quarrellings with the mandatory power in Syria and Lebanon made waves that disturbed Algiers and London and finally Churchill had to recall his doughty Paladin, in December 1944, and replace him with the gentler, Foreign Office-trained Terence Shone. Perhaps in 1945, when the mandatory power started shelling Damascus to enforce its mission civilisatrice, and British troops had to be sent to stop them, Churchill may have wished he had left his Paladin in place.

Churchill had given Spears a knighthood in 1942. In addition to his being head of the Spears Mission to the Free French worldwide, he was now His Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Levant States. Under his new Foreign Office hat (Class 2, Civil Uniform, Napoleon style, with double leaf of gold bullion on one side and a white ostrich feather border round the top) his first devoirs were to the Arab presidents, not to the French Délégué Général. And his first duty for the presidents, he felt, was to help them get free elections, and soon. This would be followed, and soon, by them getting ratification of their countries’ freedom from the Mandate, and thus independence and sovereignty, as promised by the Free French and British separately just before the 36-day war against Vichy. Churchill made Spears a baronet in 1953. Spears had asked his old friend, patron and mentor for a peerage, and it is arguable that he deserved it. He had endured much in helping the Free French, standing up to the Free French and, finally, being recalled for standing up to the Free French.

De Gaulle claimed personally to have persuaded Churchill to recall Spears from the Levant. And he affronted and hurt Lady Spears, the Chicago-born writer ‘Mary Borden’, who had brought the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit, fully equipped and herself its nursing boss, to the French Armies in the bitter winter of 1939-40, and headed it and its vehicles, with Union Jacks, tricolors and the Hadfield-Spears name on each, at the Victory Parade in Paris in 1944. De Gaulle saw them and the hated name Spears, and ordered that they be disbanded next day and the ‘Spirettes’ sent straight back to England. But it was ‘Mary Borden’ who wrote in Journey Down a Blind Alley, what, for my money, is the best thumbnail sketch of the man who had harried and harassed her husband and snubbed her. The Spearses had a son, Michael, a permanent invalid, and, at this time, an undergraduate at Oxford. At Christmas 1939, his plans having gone wrong, de Gaulle was welcomed at the Spears home in Berkshire. He and Michael Spears had a long talk, just the two of them. De Gaulle, Michael’s mother wrote, ‘talked to Michael for an hour about Oxford and the young men of England, and when he went back to London, Michael, who is a very reserved chap, came to me and said: “I would like to serve under General de Gaulle.”’

Alex Gaunson, an Australian, reduces the now enormous paperasserie of the Levantine conflict with impartiality and a sure sense of materials-handling, and he manages also to be pithy, witty and wise. He hasn’t gone deeply into French archive sources. But Spears himself poured forth telegrams and memoranda (‘Most Immediate’) on his side of every point (Churchill warned him ‘Don’t write so much’: it only gave his eager enemies in the Foreign Office Eastern Department more opportunities to attack with stinging minutes) and Nancy Maurice, his long-term secretary, who was his Foreign Office-established PA when he was the Minister to the Levant States, and eventually the second Lady Spears, kept it all filed. It was all distributed later to Oxford, Cambridge and London University archive libraries and is amply available for the ferreting historians. Spears was bitter about Churchill hauling him back with his pro-Arab mission, as he saw it, unfulfilled. And his posthumously edited and published Fulfilment of a Mission (1977) sticks to the evasion that Churchill had suggested 33 years before: that he came back to prepare to fight the 1945 Election for his Conservative seat of Carlisle. The burghers there were not much interested in his speeches about our responsibilities to the Arabs, and he lost his seat. Gaunson makes it clear that Churchill himself did quite a lot to muddy the waters in the Levant (which he preferred to call ‘Syria’). His mood towards de Gaulle and the French changed, from love to sorrow to anger and back again, and sometimes, his signals and memoranda show, he seemed to be holding the wrong end of the stick simply through inattention.

Second Lieutenant the Hon. Bryan Guinness of the Royal Sussex Regiment, novelist, poet, farmer, son and heir of Lord Moyne, was posted to the Spears Mission in Brazzaville in February 1941. He served there, and in Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut, and was for a period stand-in ADC to Spears. He had other postings in Intelligence departments in the Levant, and, not only by predilection but because he thought that that was what it was all about, he made friends with his Free French opposite numbers:

The other evening several of us dined together at the officers’ club and afterwards we went and read Racine out loud. Colonel Reyniers, a particularly charming and cultivated Frenchman, told me how he had read all Racine out loud to his wife and I remembered how I used to inflict him on you. Colonel Reyniers has five children like myself. He is melancholy: but charming. He wanted to take the part of Phèdre himself, but we insisted on her part being taken by a woman who teaches at the Lycée here. We read on the balcony of a Protestant parson called Monsieur Kouder. There was a lovely moon shining down into the courtyard below ... we read the play straight through at a sitting. We drank crème de menthe and water between whiles.

‘You’ is Guinness’s wife Elizabeth at their home near Andover. This book is an editing of his letters to her in four years of separation, plus a few letters to his father, and some entries in the diaries he was keeping.

Guinness had travelled out by ship from Greenock and (didn’t most of us?) took War and Peace with him to read. He finished it in a fortnight. In all his postings he had hard work to do. But he found horses to ride. He took Arabic lessons. He had a black-out when riding his bicycle in Damascus, and cracked his skull. He went on picnics, he watched birds, played his penny whistle, tennis and chess. There is a scene in Cairo when he was recuperating from another spell in hospital – his horse had thrown him and then fallen on him and broken his leg. He was staying at his father’s villa in Cairo. Lord Moyne was then, summer 1943, Deputy Minister Resident, Middle East. Guinness and his father’s young secretary, Nicholas Henderson (later our Ambassador in Bonn, Paris and Washington), went to the Minister Resident’s (Casey) swimming-pool: ‘I sat on the edge of the pool and dangled in one leg while Nicholas and Mr Casey swam. I had my chessboard with me and Nicholas swam to the edge when it was his turn to make a move.’

Lord Moyne followed Casey as Minister, and in November 1944, in Cairo, was assassinated by the Stern Gang. There is a moving description of the new Lord Moyne’s last harrowing weeks of travel down to Cairo from Damascus, the elaborate funeral procession, and the air journey back to England with his father’s coffin. A few more postings now, to SHAEF in Paris, to Rheims, to Frankfurt. The book starts with Second Lieutenant Guinness on a politico-military course in Cambridge at the time of Dunkirk – ‘I met the elderly historian G.M. Trevelyan in a gunsmith’s shop buying a revolver with which to check the expected invasion’ – and ends with Major Lord Moyne helping with preparations for a great Fourth of July party the British top brass were giving for American colleagues in Frankfurt in 1945.

Now, a year after the son’s book, comes a book by the father: an editing of his diaries and letters to his wife in World War One. The Hon. Walter Guinness MP spent the first months of the war on the military alert for German landings in East Anglia. Walter Guinness was to become a very active fighting and front-line staff officer, noting the horrors of sudden death, less sudden death, mud and lack of sleep all around him; the clash of ignorant armies below him when he was in an observation balloon; the stupidities and furies of commanders under pressure, and the doggedness of men at arms in foul conditions.

Guinness had no good word to say of his ‘gibbering Portuguese’ allies: he thought the South Africans were wonderful, the early staffwork of the Americans awful (all offices closed at 8 p.m.), but in August 1918 he said in a letter to his wife: ‘Now it is a mathematical certainty that we can so smash Germany as to cure her for a long time to come of “militarism”. The fact that the United States can produce practically unlimited numbers of troops of an entirely different quality from anything else now in the field, troops of such physique that they can march (carrying their sixty pounds in battle order) far further than the dregs of humanity to which other armies are being rapidly reduced, makes it certain that if we stick to it we can in time get a real decision.’

He had been at the sharp end of the Allied fighting through four years of retreat and advance. He had been at Gallipoli, at the Somme battles, at Passchendaele and at the massive but last-gasp German break-through in March 1918. He emerged with two DSOs and material for a good book, even when published more than sixty years later.