I’ve pasted another set of letters, as Dad settles into guard duty and the inevitable ennui and excitement of his time in the Middle East. It’s getting hotter in every sense.
To begin it is a snake hunt that engrosses him. Then some small details of patrols and a report on Johnny’s injury from the knifing he had referenced in a previous letter. But what strikes me is his continuing bantering with mum. It’s chessier than when I knew them but the same personalities come through. Nothing was ever beyond a tease. For instance…
Dad and Mum are off to a formal do and Mum is wearing a blue two piece.
Dad: ‘I’ll brush your shoulders, Barbs.’
Mum (suspicious): ‘Why?’
Dad (solicitous, but grinning): ‘Just a touch of dandruff I think.’
Mum (huffily): ‘That’s pollen.’
Pretty much from then until he died Dad called Mum pollen. I called her Brian but that’s another story.
Further on Dad encounters trouble in a mosque (he calls it a church) when out of bounds; he recounts the temptation of local brothels and the incidence of VD amongst his colleagues – it’s the drink that causes the loss of control, he says, and he never was much of a drinker.
Things turn more serious in his letter of 13th May; the Labour Government has announced a withdrawal from Egypt which eventually led to the Nassar take over and in due time the Suez fiasco. As you’ll see, and as was quite common, the erosion of Empire is causing some misgivings, as is the (quite understandable) restraint imposed on the likes of Dad by his senior officers and political leaders. If they’d been allowed out to fight heaven knows what the political fallout would have been. It was bad enough as it was.
Interestingly he expresses a view that if a war started between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian Arabs, the rest of the Arab world would join in. As we have seen recently the splits in the Arab world made that risk unlikely though a bloody battle would have ensued, surely. It was certainly true that if there was one uniting cause at the time for the Arab nations and factions it was the Palestine conundrum.
His days are boredom, guard duty, more boredom, the odd police work, dodging stones being thrown and back to boredom. His cheek gets him in trouble, too – he always had to have the last word – that never changed in life.
In the letter 26th May letter he recounts being shot at in Nathanya – he sounds all very cool but I expect that was far from the truth.
And then he finds out, despite his best efforts to stop her, Mum’s applied to serve in the ATS overseas. It never happened but it didn’t stop him trying to stop it. Knowing Mum the more he tried the more determined she would have been.
And then, in his letter of 11th June he talks about his poetry, how ‘unmanly’ it is and how he dares not tell anyone apart from Mum. How I know the feeling – ‘keeping it in the bedroom’. And how I recognize that coy reluctance to have his poetry judged. He preferred to believe it rubbish than risk finding out it was good. Eventually ( after he reached 50) he began to submit some and have it published but he was never comfortable.
Later he describes losing a colleague in a swimming accident off the Nathanya coast; Dad has already mentioned its dangers and this time it takes a victim. That must have been dreadful. Dad almost makes light of it, tucking the news away at the back of the letter and he never ever mentioned it afterwards.
Finally some troops, including a captain in Dad’s battalion are kidnapped; tension is heightened, and his anger (and bitter racist comments) increase. He refers to rumours of torture by the Haganah. Did that happen? I don’t know; he was convinced but in the febrile atmosphere, rumour soon becomes established fact.
I’d like to try and put Dad’s views into some historical context, something I doubt he understood. If you are interested in more detail of the British forces in Palestine please consult Sue King’s website. It is hugely informative.
The mess that was and remains the situation in this part of the Middle East is, sadly, to some degree a political construct of British policy at the end of WW1. The overriding British political policy in the region when entering WW1 was the destruction of the remains of the Ottoman Empire and suppressing Turkey, then an ally of Germany.
That led to two incompatible positions being taken.
- On the one hand close links were forged between the British and the Arab nationalists – famously involving TE Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) and Gen Allenby. In 1915 Henry McMahon British High Commissioner in Egypt wrote a letter that promised, on Britain’s behalf the independence for all Arab-populated areas of the Turkish empire with the exception of ‘portions of Syria lying to the West of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo’. Palestine is to the south. The inclusion or otherwise of Palestine in this promise has been long disputed.
- On the other the British Foreign Secretary, anxious to ensure world Jewry supported the war effort and especially the large American lobby that could influence the enthusiasm of the US entering into the conflict, sought support from Zionists, via its leaders Weizmann and Sokolov – the Balfour declaration followed in 1917 giving support for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ with the proviso nothing would be done ‘which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’.
At the time Palestine had a small Jewish community of some 80,000 but 90% of the population was Arab.
If you put these two promises together, both made during a conflict when millions lost their lives (and remember both promises were made, not with a long term view in mind but merely to maximise the chances of immediate success in the European war), you are almost guaranteed disaster. If you then have a mandate (as Britain did from 1919) under which on the one hand you sometimes seem to favour the Jewish immigrants and at other times the indigenous Arab population; and all the time, rumbling away in the background, you have America constantly irritating for more freedom for the Jewish immigrants. Then you add in the impetus to immigration that the growing anti Semitism in Europe culminating in the rise of Nazism, you can see the chances of a solution acceptable to both sides was never likely.
And if you were a young soldier who knew little of all of this but rather understood his role, Britain’s role, to be to to keep the peace between two groups diametrically opposed to each other, while the UN and the USA fermented discontent (as did France and Russia – none of these nations were keen on an influx of dispossessed Jews so pointing them at the tin-box that was Palestine made a lot of sense for them), it is easy to feel isolated and more than a little paranoid.
People should love us for trying to help yet they hate us? How can that be? That seems to be Dad’s sentiment. Here’s a poem he wrote, summing up his feelings
What he almost certainly didn’t realise was that he was a representative of the body (the British Government) that both sides saw as the cause of the problem. Britain had made two promises; the recipients thought ‘their’ promise entirely reasonable and the other not something the British could or should have made.
And here we are today, nearly 100 years on from McMahon’s letter and the Balfour declaration and the issue is as intractable as ever.
So when any of us fulminate against the behaviour of the Israeli military or the Palestinian forces (as we justifiably do and which we should stop fulminating and protesting), we might just remember whose policies set the ground work for today’s headlines. Individually I bear no blame for the appalling behaviour on both sides but I suggest that nationally we cannot ignore our role in this. It means, like to or not, that we cannot just stand to one side and throw our hands in the air and say it is someone else’s problem. We must continue, however difficult it seems, to try and help the parties involved find a solution; we must continue to criticise egregious behaviour and support the oppressed and the disadvantaged but we must be careful about taking sides – we owe it to both sides to try and help sort this mess out.