The Reading Room

Secrets of Suez

Review of Merry & Serge Bromberger’s ‘Secrets of Suez’….

This is a book which struck a chord with me for two reasons, firstly it was translated from French into English by a journalist I have written about extensively, James Cameron, but more importantly its subject matter was the scene for a young British soldier who served at Suez, my father.

First published in France in 1957, the English edition came out the same year by Pan Books in association with Sidgwick & Jackson. The book begins with a very interesting foreword by the translator himself in which he doesn’t entirely agree with the author’s overall view of the Suez crisis: ‘Their (the authors) attitudes are nevertheless clear. The authors are aghast at the scandalous errors committed last year in the name of Britain and France-so am I; but the errors we deplore are not the same. They hold the Suez  Expedition to have been a worthy operation shamefully mismanaged to an untimely halt; I hold it to have been a shameful operation providentially interrupted not a moment too soon’ Noticeably he ends with; ‘Among the many values of such a book as this is its demonstration of how identical sets of facts can inspire such violently opposed interpretations’

The book begins with the lead-up to the campaign and the discussions between the French and British and each others aims. The British were keen to maintain the movement of traffic on the Canal as well as position themselves once more as a significant player in the Middle East. The French also wanted the Canal to run freely but were intent on disposing of President Nasser who they saw as an enemy of the State and French interests in North Africa. Of important note is Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister’s belief that the United States would take a neutral stance on action which of course turned out to be anything but the case and would eventually cost Eden his premiership. Eden’s role and tortured considerations are well covered throughout.

Given the date of publication it is clear that the authors wasted no time in gathering the research material and putting the book together. At one hundred and ninety pages it isn’t by any means a concise history of the conflict but there is plenty of information to provide the reader with a clear understanding of a venture which would prove to be the final nail in the coffin in which Britain’s status as a global power lay.

At the time of publication the authors were accused of writing a book on behalf of the French government, the British considered it an unfair appraisal with much of the blame being placed upon them but the authors steadfastly refuted all of it. They were both based in Port Said at the time of the conflict and reported how they saw it and whilst I agree with their early assertion that they placed no blame or bitterness at the feet of the British there are certainly moments of French patriotism. In the construction of the book they interviewed many of the key players as well as the soldiers on the ground, there are reminders too of the risks war photographers took and ultimately paid including David Seymour, shot dead by the Egyptians alongside Jean Roy whose cloth-wrapped bodies were returned to the Allies eight days later.

These conversations were broad and intriguing but perhaps it is best left to one officer whom the brothers quote to personify war in its most simple of ways; ‘”War is a pretty simple matter. It only becomes complicated when the politicians take a hand” Cameron’s assertion of the authors partisan attitude is blatantly apparent in the final paragraphs  of the book as they take Egypt to task over France’s contribution to their country during imperialism. Their arrogance is France’s arrogance, a colonial demand for gratitude whilst blissfully ignoring the price tag attached; ‘We rediscovered for Egypt her history and the writings of her forefathers; we filled her museums, and all it cost her was an obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. We dug her canals and multiplied her harvests…why should so many services rendered, so many bonds of spirit and affection forged, make an Egyptian preach hatred against us in our North Africa?’

This rail against ungrateful colonials leaves a sour taste, the book ends on a weepy, self-pitying cry to America; ‘From this country we could withdraw with dignity and self-respect. We could ask our American friends: Did all the things we accomplished there deserve the provocative breaking of contracts, threats to our economic life-line, and war stirred up against us in our North Africa?’ 

Not your North Africa, and therein lies the root of France’s problem as much today as it was back then. England, France and Israel withdrew from the conflict, threatened by the Soviet Union and humiliated by America. Were it not for Eisenhower’s intervention the outcome could have been catastrophic, a fact oddly lost on the authors.

The Revelations of Merry & Serge Bromberger: Secrets of Suez

Published in 1957 by Pan Books in association with Sidgwick and Jackson

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