Sat. May 25th, 2024

Lebanese villagers fondly remember the ‘noble and humane’ Anzacs of World War Two

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May20,2024
In 1941, the Australian army’s 7th Division – along with a coalition of British, Free French, Indian, Czech, and Arab Legion forces – liberated Lebanon and Syria from the Nazi-aligned Vichy French government.
The campaign to remove Vichy forces during the Second World War led to the independence of both Lebanon and Syria, in 1943 and 1944 respectively.
On July 15, 1941, Beirut was liberated after Vichy forces surrendered to the Allies.

During the preceding months, the Australian 7th Division marched towards Lebanon on two fronts, while other Allied forces headed towards Syria from Palestine.

Syrian border. Group photo of members of the 2/6th Australian field company Sergeant Raymond Alexander OGG, first on the left in the front row.

Syrian border. Group photo of members of the 2/6th Australian field company, Sergeant Raymond Alexander OGG is first on the left in the front row. Source: Australian War Memorial

The Australians faced fierce resistance during their advance near the Litani River, Jezzine, Merjeoun and Damour.

Dr Ali Yousuf Hijazi is from the village of Debbin in southern Lebanon and is the author of ‘Kashkoul Debbin’, a book detailing the history of the region and personal accounts of those who lived through it.

An inscription cut into a cliff to record the capture of Damour by the Australians.

An inscription cut into a cliff to record the capture of Damour by the Australians. Source: Australian War Memorial

He told SBS Arabic24 that the battles fought by the Australian forces were pivotal to the overall result of the war.

“The battles were ongoing, forces advanced and retreated. After the initial advancement of the Australians, they had to retreat, which allowed the Germans to take control for a while.”
Dr Hijazi said during the joint German and Vichy occupation, “The locals were treated very badly, they abused the women, they tortured the men, as a retribution for what was seen as a lack of resistance against the Allied forces by locals”.
“However, when the Australians regained ground, they did the opposite. They fed the hungry, treated the wounded, and they looked after the people. They were noble and humane.”
Dr Hijazi said the local Lebanese population of today considers the time when the “heroic” Australians were in the region as a “golden era”.
“They gave families food rations, grains to sow, they paid them a generous amount of money to help in constructing trenches and the like.
“This was perhaps the first time when people had a taste of chocolate.”

Just days after a truce was called in 1941, Australian soldiers, accompanied by other Allied forces, entered Beirut and remained for the duration of the war.

Commemorated in the modern day

Some 320 Australians and 15 New Zealanders lie in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli.

More than eight decades after the campaign, Lebanon continues to embrace the monuments that testify to the presence of Australian forces on its soil, and perhaps the most important of these is the railway line between Beirut and Tripoli, which is in a state of disrepair.

Graves of Commonwealth soldiers at the Beirut War Cemetery, 25 April 2018.

Graves of Commonwealth soldiers at the Beirut War Cemetery, 25 April 2018. Source: Photo provided by the Australian Embassy, Beirut

Many of the crumbling bridges and pillars that make up the line still bear the emblem of the Australian Imperial Forces and the engineering units that oversaw its construction.

“In Lebanon, perhaps because people lived through the war, the respect is more visceral and more poignant,” former ambassador to Lebanon Rebekah Grindlay said.
She said much of the original railway line still exists and some of her Lebanese friends joke that they hope Australians would someday return to build another line, especially considering the traffic jams experienced in the modern-day.

For Ms Grindlay, the finest Australian achievement in terms of construction was the construction of the bridge over Dog River, 20 kilometres north of Beirut.

The bridge over Dog River.

The bridge over Dog River. Source: Australian War Memorial

‘They had no exploitative motives’

Dr Hijazi affirms that Australian forces were not in Lebanon as an occupation force, but rather soldiers that “came to liberate the people”.
“They had no exploitative motives. They built bridges and railways.”

He explained that in 1941, Australian forces employed local villagers to dig trenches to prevent Axis forces from advancing.

Dr Yousuf Hijazi standing alongside what remains of a structure he believes was created by Australian soldiers.

Dr Ali Yousuf Hijazi standing alongside what remains of a structure he believes was built by Australian soldiers. Source: SBS Arabic24 (Iman Riman)

“The Australians paid a generous amount of money; the villagers left their work in the farms and went to help the Australians.

“They were poor, and the amount of money paid in an hour would be equivalent to a full day wage.”

Part of a post-WWII hospital structure Dr Hijazi believes was created by Australian.

Part of a WWII hospital structure Dr Hijazi believes was built by Australian forces. Source: SBS Arabic24 (Iman Riman)

Part of an entrance to a post-WWII hospital Dr Hijazi believes was created by Australian.

Part of an entrance to a WWII hospital Dr Hijazi believes was built by Australian forces. Source: SBS Arabic24 (Iman Riman)

Dr Hijazi believes that Australians built a military airport and an underground hospital in the far south of the country, though he confirms that there is no official record to prove they were solely responsible.

“The airport was deserted as soon as the war ended and was never used after, but there were plans to transform the hospital which still remains in a good condition, into a military museum, but that did not happen, unfortunately.

Trenches built by Australian soldiers in Southern Lebanon during WWII.

Trenches built by Australian soldiers in Southern Lebanon during WWII. Source: SBS Arabic24 (Iman Riman)

Dr Hijazi stands at the site be believes was once the site of an Australian-built airport in Southern Lebanon.

Dr Hijazi stands at what he believes was once the site of an Australian-built airport in Southern Lebanon. Source: SBS Arabic24 (Iman Riman)

“There is no doubt that the Australians have left a strong impression and fond memories with the Lebanese people.

“We must say how grateful we are to the Australians, while others killed the men and abused the women, the Australians left not only great monuments but also great memories.”

The WWII shrine in the village of Debbine.

The WWII shrine in the village of Debbin. Source: SBS Arabic24 (Iman Riman)

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Lebanese villagers fondly remember the ‘noble and humane’ Anzacs of World War Two”
  1. As a history enthusiast, I find it fascinating to learn about the heroic efforts of the Anzacs during World War Two. The liberation of Lebanon and Syria by the Australian 7th Division truly showcases the bravery and resilience of these soldiers, and the impact they had on the region’s history is undeniable.

  2. Did the Australian soldiers receive any local support from the Lebanese villagers during the battles?

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