Review by David Beechey
A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East 1914-1918, By James Barr, W. W. Norton & Company: N.Y., ISBN 978-0-398-07065, 2012, 464 pp., $19.77 hardcover, $16.17 Kindle edition
I was gripped from the very first page when I read the recently declassified British government report that James Barr found when he first began his research for this book. An MI5 officer wrote the report in early 1945 and it explained that the “Jewish terrorists”, who were murdering British soldiers in Palestine, were obtaining their finance and arms from a British ally. The terrorists, he reported, “would seem to be receiving support from the French.” Barr says that this revelation made his eyes bulge. While British soldiers were still fighting and dying to liberate France, the nascent French government, barely six months old, was secretly backing Jewish efforts to kill British soldiers and officials in Palestine. It was hardly surprising that there was such antipathy between the British and the French governments in the 50’s and 60’s. There had to be reasons why De Gaulle blocked the British application to join the EU and as I read further I found them.
Most of what Barr describes is well known but by concentrating on the “Anglo-French struggle”, he has produced a catalogue of cynicism while he dissects the rivalry between Britain and France. This rivalry was at first kept in check following the Fashoda Incident in 1898, which brought Britain and France to the edge of hostilities, and then the alliance was maintained by the necessity of winning the First World War. Gradually distrust developed because the British had promised, through T.E.Lawrence, and in exchange for their military assistance, Arab independence when the Turks and the Germans were defeated. This conflicted with the French wish to maintain, authoritarian control of Syria.
The decision as to how the Middle East should be divided between France and Britain was initially directed and agreed by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot. Sykes favoured a line splitting, the soon to be defeated Ottoman Empire, in two --- the “line in the sand.” This would stretch from the Mediterranean Sea just north of Acre across Iraq to the mountains on the Iranian border just north of Kirkuk. France would have the northern part, mainly because the French felt that they owned Syria, and Britain the south, partly because of the strategic position in safe-guarding the route to India and also because oil had been discovered in what is now Iraq and there was an intention to build a pipeline from there to the port of Haifa. “I would like to draw the line from ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”, said Sykes at a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street. Britain and France could not agree about Jerusalem and, although neither liked the compromise, it was decided that the Holy Land would have an international administration. Lloyd-George, the new Prime Minister in 1916, had no particular objection to anyone other than “Agnostic, Atheist France” possessing the “Christian Holy Places.” He also said that he “didn’t give a damn for the Jews or their past or their future” but he believed that sponsoring the Zionists would appease President Wilson and the Jewish lobby in the United States and, at the same time, appear high minded and deny it to the French. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had he permitted the French to incorporate Palestine into Syria. The French suspected that Lloyd-George was attempting to sabotage the Sykes-Picot agreement but they let it go on the basis that “no one would be so stupid as to pursue a policy that was bound to cause trouble between the Arabs and the Jews and that it would, for a very thin profit, provoke serious difficulties.”
What was unknown to the French was that Britain had promised Sharif Hussein, the ruler of Mecca, support in a general revolt against the Turks and independence from well north of the “line in the sand” to Palestine.
The man who threw the spanner in the works was T.E.Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” Passionately pro- Arab, knowing about the Sykes-Picot Line, and the contradictory promises to the Arabs he attempted to sabotage the Agreement by leading an Arab assault on Damascus. While Lawrence was deep behind enemy lines, the British government publicised the offer to help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Lawrence was appalled when he found out. Despite Lawrence’s best efforts, Britain put forward in 1917 The Balfour Declaration stating that there would be a homeland for Jews in Palestine although it was carefully worded so that it did not promise specifically a Jewish State.
President Wilson sent a Commission in 1919 to investigate. They reported back that the United States should take on the Mandate for Syria and Palestine and that Feisal was an outstanding figure and should be Head of State and that the “extreme Zionist program in Palestine would require serious modification to prevent war between the Arabs and the Jews.” How different would the world be today had Wilson accepted their recommendations? This report was not published and political pressures within the United States forced Wilson to change the wording and intentions. The description of the tumultuous events that followed is well written and totally absorbing, and explains in some detail how Britain’s relationship with both the Zionists and the Arabs deteriorated.
The difficulties with the Sunni and Shia and the nearly constant small unit military actions are described in some detail. One British general commented, “it is the same problem as Ireland, namely, two peoples living in a small country hating each other like Hell.” This description could be applied both to the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine and the Sunni and Shia in what is now Iraq. The parallels will strike the reader today. The Zionists accused Britain of anti-Semitism and the British realised that they had produced an insoluble problem.
There are wonderful moments of humour, for example, when Lloyd George talked airily of a Palestine stretching from ‘Dan to Beersheba’ quoting from the Bible. A 19th Century Welshman, he would have been well versed in the Bible, but unfortunately no one knew where Dan was and they had to cable London to find out!
The British favoured an independent Greater Syria but this conflicted with the French intentions and, in the 1930’s, with the rise of Nazi Germany Her Majesty’s government was again careful not to antagonise France. This caution did not, however, stop continuing intrigue on both sides.
When France collapsed in 1940, and Vichy France took over Syria, Britain was faced with the reality of a well armed, pro-German, country dangerously close to her oil supplies. Faced with the threat of German attacks from Crete and possibly down through the Caucasus as well, the decision was taken to invade Syria. According to Barr, the enmity this earned from France was experienced right through until at least the 1960’s and until well after the death of De Gaulle.
The Vichy French were defeated and the British occupied Syria until the end of the Second World War. In May 1945 the French landed an invasion force and attempted to take over Syria and after some fighting with Syrian forces were stopped by British troops. It is hard to believe that with Germany only just defeated Britain and France almost started hostilities. Britain granted independence to Syria and it proved to be highly unstable and very difficult to govern. The different tribes and the internecine disputes described in the book give an insight into the problems there today and point to the fact that what is happening may well still be internecine and not part of the “Arab Spring” at all. Duff Cooper, a British Minister, had a meeting with De Gaulle in June 1945 and he quotes De Gaulle as saying “We are not, I admit, in a position to open hostilities against you at the present time. But you have insulted France and betrayed the West. This cannot be forgiven.”
Barr deals in some detail with “Jewish terrorism” against the British and Arabs and shows how ruthless some Zionists were with the taking of hostages and then killing them. Assassinations, bombs in civilian places in the UK and Palestine, letter bombs to politicians, planting and exploding a bomb in a ship carrying Jewish refugees were tactics common in both Palestine and the UK. Hard to believe though it is, there was an approach by a Jewish group (the Stern Gang) to Adolf Hitler, through Vichy France, offering to fight for Germany if Hitler would “support a Jewish State.... allied to the German Reich.” Throughout these actions Jewish groups were aided and abetted by France. This included the supply of arms and ammunition and safe havens in Syria and France. Barr produces compelling evidence for all of this.
The increasing and devastating violence in both Britain and Palestine, including outright warfare, by both Arab and Jewish terrorists sapped the will of a war weary and nearly bankrupt Britain. The result was that British troops were withdrawn in May 1948.
I can highly recommend this book for its clear narrative, and the fascinating detail. It is easy to read, and Barr maintains an admirable control over his data. He has trawled through recently released British and French documents which are detailed in the bibliography. The maps are poor, however, and I would have liked much more detail on the fighting in the interwar years. Barr also has a tendency to state as a fact what various protagonists felt as if he had evidence for it, when in many cases he did not have that evidence. That is a minor criticism. The one conclusion that is inescapable is that neither Britain nor France emerges from this story with much credit. There is also a startling omission. Having shown how bad relations became between France, Britain and the new State of Israel, Barr does not detail how it was that Britain, France and Israel conspired to invade Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956!
When one reads the detailed descriptions of Jewish “terrorism” against Britain and the Palestinians is it too simplistic to draw the conclusion that Muslim terrorists of today have simply followed the lead given them because it worked for them?
This book will absorb you. It might also annoy you, but you will be astonished.