Thursday, 31 July 2014

Palestine, The Hundred Years War

In the Embankment Gardens in London, below the gaze of the statue of Robert Burns, is a small First World War memorial to the officers and men of The Camel Corps.  Inscribed on it are the familiar names of current locations of war and conflict in parts of the Middle East.

In all the attention given to WW1 it is likely that little or less will be given to the triumphs and disasters of the British Army there and how or why this followed the collapse of the ancient Ottoman Empire. Our perspective is largely derived from the film Lawrence of Arabia; colourful, if inaccurate near fiction.

Britain and France had been in contention in this part of the world for a long time before 1914, almost coming to war in 1898 with The Fashoda Incident.  But then Germany arrived on the scene making an ally of Turkey and seeking to drive a railway from Berlin to Baghdad and to establish itself as a major power in the region.

In the later part of the 19th Century Russia had sought to drive out its Jewish population leading to mass migrations to western Europe and beyond.  This in turn provoked Anti-Semitism there on the one part and Zionism on the other, the belief that the Jews should return to Palestine as a warrior race.

A result of this was the Anglo-French Sykes Picot agreement during the War with the object of assisting Jews to migrate to Palestine.  In the Versailles Peace Treaty, Lloyd George to please the Bible readers in Wales and others, was proud to emerge with the British Mandate for Palestine.

But the Empire had bitten off more than it could chew.  There was no necessary agreement in Britain to all this in that there was a strong pro-Arab school of thought and it was not long before the influx of Jews, the new Israelites began to cause first tensions and then serious problems.  Not least for Britain for whom the traditional balancing and compromise was never going to work.

It took a major military presence in Palestine and some firm and unpopular government to keep any kind of peace and there was always one problem after another.  While for the officers it might be one thing but for the other ranks it was a grim posting.  It is not too much to say that a good deal of certain ethnic prejudices among the ordinary British was learned by conscripts cooped in sweaty barracks engaged on risky policing duties.

At the end of WW2 the situation became dire and a costly impossible one to resolve so the British simply decamped and left them to it in the late 1940's.  As a result of WW2 the flow of Jewish refugees became a flood and the British authorities had to contend with active terrorism when they tried to curtail it.

In 1956 in a mad bid to reassert British authority in the area and especially over the Suez Canal, Anthony Eden provoked a conflict which added to the damage and the collapse of this project is generally taken to be the point at which it came evident that Britain was no longer a major power.

We have being playing pretend games ever since this as the conflicts have rumbled on producing harsh dictatorships, various forms of terrorism, armed conflicts and all that we see now.  In the early 1970's one result was the oil price shock which happened when the Heath government had decided to spend its way out of financial difficulties.

Inflation, that had been building up for some time, took off and wreaked havoc with both the economy and politics after Wilson had replaced Heath in the 1974 election.  After two years Wilson was a spent man and replaced by Callaghan.  His government was wrecked by the inflation and in 1979 defeated by Mrs. Thatcher.

Now we are all back, more or less, where we started.  We have learned little not least because our politicians and associates do not do much history and because the media stick to stereotypes and simple spin in a highly complex part of the world.

A hundred years ago just after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the West tried to take over.  Now our power and influence has also collapsed there is no sign of any way that the problems can be resolved short of a series of bloodbaths and disasters.

The economic and political effects of this, the consequences of history will be felt by all and whether the fall out in our own urban areas with its varied populations from among the warring groups will become violent we do not know.  Nor will we know what to do or why.

Are we at the beginning of not just a new phase but a new and different Hundred Years War?

1 comment:

  1. I pray you are wrong, and we are not at the beginning again of this seemingly eternal conflict. A read through from 100 years and more back is essential. History is not really taught in schools (and in further education) in my and extended familys experiences. After WW2 I found it hard to believe what British forces in Palestine had to suffer trying to keep the peace there.