There was something gruesomely familiar about the way we commemorated the supposed end of the First World War a hundred years ago. Not just the waterfalls of poppies and the familiar names – Mons, the Somme, Ypres, Verdun – but the almost total silence about all those who died in the First World War, whose eyes were not as blue as ours might be or whose skin was not as pink as ours might be or whose suffering continues from the Great War to this very day.
Even those Sunday supplements that dared stray from the western front only briefly touched on the after-effects of the war in the new Poland, the new Czechoslovakia, the new Yugoslavia and Bolshevik Russia, with a mention of Turkey. The mass famine – perhaps 1.6 million dead – of the Arabs of the Levant under Turkish looting and Allied blockade in the First World War received not a word. Even more astoundingly, I could find not a single reference to the greatest crime against humanity of the First World War – not the murder of Belgian hostages by German troops in 1914, but the Armenian genocide of a million and a half Christian civilians in 1915 by Germany’s Ottoman Turkish ally.
What happened to that key document of the First World War in the Middle East, the 1917 Balfour Declaration which promised a homeland for Jews in Palestine and doomed the Palestinian Arabs (a majority in Palestine at the time) to what I call refugeedom? Or the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which chopped up the Middle East and betrayed the promise of Arab independence? Or General Allenby’s advance on Jerusalem during which – forgotten now by our beloved commentators – he initiated the first use of gas in the Middle East. So smitten are we by the savagery of modern Syrian and Iraqi history, that we forget – or do not know – that Allenby’s men fired gas shells at the Turkish army in Gaza. Of all places. But gas in the collective memory last weekend was confined, yet again, to the Western Front.
First World War Allied war cemeteries in both the Middle East and Europe contain tens of thousands of Muslim graves – Algerians, Moroccans, Indians – yet I did not see a photograph of one of them. Nor of the Chinese labourers who died on the Western Front carrying shells for British troops – nor the African soldiers who fought and died for France on the Somme. Only in France, it seems did President Macron remember this salient feature of the conflict, as well he should. For more than 30,000 men from the Comoros, Senegal, the Congo, Somalia, Guinea and Benin died in the Great War.
There used to be a monument to them in Rheims. But the Germans launched a ferocious racist attack on black French troops who participated in the post-First World War occupation of Germany for raping German women and for “endangering the future of the German race”. All untrue, of course, but by the time Hitler’s legions reinvaded France in 1940, the Nazi propaganda against these same men had done its work. Well over 2,000 black French troops were massacred by the Wehrmacht in 1940; the monument was destroyed. It has just been reconstructed – and reopened in time for the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice.
Then there are the sepulchral ironies of the dead. Of the 4,000 Moroccan troops – all Muslims – sent to the Battle of the Marne in 1914, only 800 survived. Others died at Verdun. Of General Hubert Lyautey’s 45,000 Moroccan soldiers, 12,000 had been killed by 1918. It took the little French magazine Jeune Afrique to note that the graves of many of the Moroccan dead are today still marked with the star and crescent of the Turkish Ottoman caliphate. But the Moroccans, though notionally inhabitants of the Ottoman empire, were fighting for France against Turkey’s German allies. The star and crescent have never been the official symbol of Muslims. In any event, Moroccans had by the Great War already got their own flag.
But of course, the real symbols of the First World War and its continuing and bloody results are in the Middle East. The conflicts in the region – in Syria, Iraq, in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank and in the Gulf – can mostly trace their genesis to our titanic Great War. Sykes-Picot divided the Arabs. The war – only days after the Gallipoli landings – enabled the Turks to destroy their Christian Armenian minority. The Nazis, by the way, loved Mustafa Kemal Ataturk because he had “cleansed” his minorities. When Ataturk died, the party newspaper Volkischer Beobachter edged its front page in black. The division of Lebanon and Syria and their sectarian systems of administration were invented by the French after they secured the post-war mandate for governing the Levant. The post-First World War Iraqi uprising against British rule was partly fuelled by disgust at the Balfour Declaration.
Mischievously, I delved into my late dad’s library of old history books – he of the Great War, Third Battle of the Somme, 1918 – and found Winston Churchill, with rage and sorrow, writing about the “holocaust” of the Armenians (he actually used that word) but he could not see the Arab world’s future even in his four-volume The Great War of 1935. His only disquisition on the smouldering ex-Ottoman empire came in a two-page appendix on page 1,647. It was entitled: “A Memorandum upon the Pacification of the Middle East”.
As for the Palestinians who wake up every morning today in the dust and filth of the camps of Nahr el-Bared, Ein el-Helwe or Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon, Balfour’s pen scratched his signature on this document of dispossession not in 1915, but only last night. For these refugees, still in their hovels and shacks as you read these words, the First World War never ended – not even now, today, on the hundredth anniversary of the “end” of the First World War.