War Allies but Colonial Rivals: Britain, France and the Middle East

On New Year’s Eve 1956, I watched Television for the first time in my life. It was the annual 1956 news overview of the NTS, the Dutch Broadcasting Corporation. It was a shocking experience, the (very small) screen was full of tanks, bombardments and military planes related to the events in Hungary and the Suez Crisis. I went to bed that night asking my parents if the war would soon reach us too. They reassured me that I had nothing to fear. However I believe that my first television experience had a big impact on the rest of my life: I became interested in politics and disgusted about violence and war. Since that day I was aware of the troubles in the Middle East.

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East is one of those books that really challenge traditional historical narratives. James Barr allows us a close look into the unfolding of the War Zone Middle East, as it unfortunately is still today. The book tells the story of the rivalry between Britain and France from the violent end of the Ottoman Empire to the violent birth of Israel. It is a shocking story of the willingness to defend national and tribal interests to very high material and human costs. The Sykes- Picot agreement from 1916, in the middle of the First World War, was designed to diminish the colonial tensions between the two competing allies. These merely territorial frictions in the Middle East called for a solution, and both diplomats behind the agreement were able to literary draw a line in the sand. The line, from the Mediterranean to the Persian frontier, divided the spoils: North of the stripe was for France; territory south of the line was to go to Britain. Although the divisions along this line were far from generally accepted by the many associates during the rest of the conflict in the Middle East, the pact survived the war. Sykes- Picot agreement became the basis for the post-war division of the region, against the promises made to many of the local allies during the fighting. The negotiations created five mandates: Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq, to be temporary ruled by Britain, and France would temporarily govern Lebanon and Syria. The creation of these mandates made the two powers uneasy neighbors for the following thirty years. The rivalry continued also during the Second World War.

Why should you not read this book?

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East is not free from the usual national focus. It certainly critical about the British policy towards the region, however it is even more so about the French conduct. Reading the book, I could not escape the impression of a certain British bias. Unfortunately, I am not aware of a similar study carried out by French or other historians, which could have corroborated this interpretation of the events or could have shed some different lights on what transpired. A French translation of the book is foreseen for next year, and it will be interesting to see what sort of reactions the publication will trigger in France.

Why should you read this book?

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East shows how the First World War was also a war about territorial spoils and therefore also a colonial War. The recent centenaries commemorations of the War depict particularly the atrocities and sacrifices of the military, predominantly related to the most Western areas of the Western Front. Very little attention is paid to other fronts of the Western Allies such as those in Africa, Macedonia and the Middle East, all of these bearing colonial characteristics. Barr wrote an important book helping us transcend from the sometimes still existing simplistic antagonist picture between the immoral Central Powers and the noble Allies. He helps us to get a better understanding that (colonial) spoils of War were in the early Twentieth Century still acceptable outcomes of warfare.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East is an indispensable book for all history, social studies and humanities educators who dare to address the current situation in the Middle East in their classrooms. It gives clear insights about the relationship between the Allied colonial rivalry and the current antagonisms between Arabs and the Jews. However it also offers understanding of the origins of various conflicts in the Middle East among Arab peoples such as currently in Iraq and Syria. 

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2012)

Author James Barr 
Original title A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East
Original language English
Available in English, the French edition will be published in February 2017
Language read English
No. of pages 450
Genre History