Lebanon’s a country that has seen more than a bit of conflict and, as you would expect, bearing in mind all the other places we’ve invaded, we’ve made our own major contribution to it.
In 1839–40 we fought the confusingly named Syrian War there (also known, to add to the confusion, as the Second Syrian War, or Egyptian-Ottoman War, or Second Egyptian-Ottoman War). Egypt and Turkey were competing for control of the region and the area of present-day Lebanon which, unfortunately for it, was stuck in the middle. Not for the first time, mind you. Egypt, for example, used to fight over this area with assorted powers from Asia, like the Hittites, and Babylonians long ago.
This time, Mehmet Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, had destroyed a Turkish army in Syria at the Battle of Nezib. Shortly after, at a most inconvenient time and in a most inconsiderate manner, the Turkish Sultan Mahmud II died, leaving a 16-year-old to run the Ottoman Empire.
Fearing chaos in the Middle East, as we often do, we sent Commodore Charles Napier and a small naval squadron into action. In August, he promptly arrived off Beirut and demanded that Mehmet Ali’s troops withdraw. They promptly ignored him since Napier only had a small force. But when reinforcements arrived for Napier in September, the situation changed dramatically. We bombarded Beirut and put ashore a landing force at Jounieh to the north.
Napier then set off for Sidon, bombarded it and landed to take the city itself. Meanwhile, to the north, the Egyptians abandoned Beirut. The focus then moved to Egypt, where Napier arrived with his ships and negotiated a peace treaty with Mehmet Ali.
By the early twentieth century, Egypt was firmly within our sphere of influence, while to the north and east the Ottoman Empire tottered on. In the First World War, we were on the other side from the Turks, and by autumn 1918 General Allenby’s army was pushing the Turks back through the same territory we had helped them regain in the Syrian War, as the 3rd Indian Division advanced towards Beirut.
Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the French rapidly took over Lebanon from us. And so it was that after Hitler invaded France, Lebanon came under the influence of the Vichy government, which in turn meant that we had to invade Lebanon yet again.
There were fears that Germany could use Lebanon and Syria as a base to destabilise Iraq, so in 1941 Operation Exporter was launched. What it was exporting was a large Commonwealth force under the command of two British generals, General Henry Maitland Wilson in the Mandate of Palestine and Lieutenant General Sir Edward Quinan in Iraq. The campaign was launched on 8 June 1941 and involved some surprisingly (considering that not many Brits today know much about it) heavy fighting, both in the air and on the ground, including in the advance to Beirut the Battle of the Litani (involving Australian forces and 11 Commando), the Battle of Jezzine and the Battle of Damour. Eventually, the Vichy position became untenable and with the Australian 21st Brigade about to enter Beirut, General Henri Dentz, the Vichy commander, sought an armistice. Moshe Dayan, later Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces and known for the black eye patch he wore, lost his eye in this campaign while working with an Australian unit. And the writer Roald Dahl, then a fighter pilot, flew in the campaign here.
In February 1983, we returned to Lebanon with BRITFORLEB, the British force in Lebanon, to assist with multinational efforts to deal with the then crisis here and to evacuate civilians.