Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ghosts of Empire in Beirut

In Beirut, you can see a different sort of memorial to the exploits of imperial armies: Not far from the Arab University, British and French war cemeteries border a quiet stretch of Mufti Hasan Khaled Street. Here is the reminder that the ordinary citizens of the imperial countries, as well as their colonial subjects, also paid the price for wars of conquest.
In the British War cemetery are the burials of those fallen in Lebanon “for king and country” during the First and Second World Wars. (There are other British cemeteries in Sidon to the south and Tripoli to the north.) Among meticulously groomed lawns and beautiful plantings of oleanders and roses, on one side of the street you can read on the gravestones the names of 363 fallen soldiers of WW I -- like Private C.F. Allen, age 27, Bedfordshire Regiment, died 8th November 1918; Private Jim George, age 24, 13th Hussars, died 19th October 1918; L. Cpl. S.H. Boonham, age 22, Staffordshire Yeomen, died 16th October 1918;  Private William Dallimore, age 33, 17th Lancers, died 24th October 1918; Driver A.S. Nicholls, age 23, Royal Field Artillery, died 22 November 1918; Corporal H.Y. Greenwood, age 23, Middlesex Yeomanry, died 24th November 1918; and Private Frances P. O’Donovan, age 21, 10th Bn. London Regiment died 22 November 1918.

Across the road, in part of the WW II cemetery are monuments, each discretely segregated, to the colonial troops of 1914-1818 who did not get individual graves.  “Here Are Honoured the Hindu Soldiers of the Indian Army” from units like the 2nd Lancers (Gardner’s Horse); 38th King George’s Own Central Indian Horse,  125th Napier Rifles;  “To The Honour of These Muslim Soldiers of the Indian Army Who Are Buried Near This Spot” from the 37th Lancers (Baluchi Horse); 20th Duke of Cambridge’s Own Infantry; 56th Punjabis Rifles.  And finally, “To the Honour of the Following Men of the Egyptian Labor Corps Who Are Buried Near This Spot” including The Camel Transport Corp and The Donkey Transport Company. 
Around these monuments, shaded here and there by lovely Aleppo pines and Jacaranda trees, are the gravestones of Commonwealth soldiers from the Second World War:  British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian, with a scattered few from Greek, Polish, “native” South African units and, standing a little to one side, a few individual grave of Muslim Indians and African troops.

Despite its martial character, the British cemetery in Beirut is one of the most serene and lovely places in city. The site employs an ample staff of gardeners, managed by a Lebanese supervisor who studied horticulture in Glasgow. Nobody did Empire in the modern Era as well as the British , and they don’t want you to forget it: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission oversees 7500 sites in over 100 countries.

The French are much less fastidious about their own military cemetery next door, which was closed when I visited.  Here the markers are low to the ground, surrounded by a simple layer of white gravel, but they also reveal something about the Empire defended itself with colonial, as well as Metropolitan soldiers. Among the French gravestones of those “Mort Pour La France” that I could see through the fence were many names from Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

There is no cemetery in Beirut for the 241 Marines who died in the truck bombing of their barracks on October 23, 1983.  The modern Empire has the means to return its war dead home and their monument is at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Some of these fallen soldiers might well have believed they were bringing freedom to the benighted peoples of the Middle East, but Mr. Sykes and Monsieur Picot had already made other plans in 1916.  They simply looked at a map and divided up the region between them. Nobody cared much then about what The Natives wanted.

The territory that is now Lebanon and Syria (with another  piece of land eventually returned to Turkey) was given to the French; Iraq, Trans-Jordan, and  Palestine – where Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour had promised in 1917 to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” – became British.

It took decades and another World War before the peoples in the region carved up by the British and French achieved at least nominal independence – all except for the Palestinians.  Of course we are still living with the consequences.


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