Silent Testimony of Cruelty

South of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, on a small hillock surrounded by a few trees, stands a stone obelisk, three meters high. On it is written in English: "1914-1918 - One hundred-and-ninety-two men of the Egyptian Labor Corps are buried near this spot."

South of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, on a small hillock surrounded by a few trees, stands a stone obelisk, three meters high. On it is written in English: "1914-1918 - One hundred-and-ninety-two men of the Egyptian Labor Corps are buried near this spot." Above this is written in Arabic: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah." Next to the hillock flow the waters of Nahal Oved (the Al-'Abd River).

Up until the 1948 War of Independence, on this spot stood a train station and the small Palestinian village of Deir Suneid, which no longer exists. In silent testimony to those bygone days remain the iron tracks of the old and orphaned railway that linked Egypt and Palestine, from Kantara on the banks of the Suez Canal to Haifa, via Al-Arish, Rafah, Gaza, Lod and Tul Karm. The tracks were laid during World War I by the British Empire, partly along the route of the Ottoman railway.

Who are those 192 Egyptian dead? What were their names, where did they come from, what are their histories and what were the circumstances of their deaths? The answers to all these questions are shrouded in mist. Thousands of Egyptian dead like them are buried in other places in Israel. In their lives and in their deaths they remain anonymous. Their graves are located in the territory of the state, but very few people know of their existence. They are not mentioned on the maps and in the guidebooks. The history books about World War I, including those that deal with the fronts in the Middle East and the conquest of Palestine from the Ottomans, barely mention them. British, Israeli and even Egyptian historiography has neglected them, even though the manner of their forced conscription, the inhuman attitude toward them and their deaths were part of the fuel for the 1919 revolution in the land of the Nile.

Some of the anonymous monuments, like the one at Deir Suneid, are still standing in various places in Israel and in other places in what was once Palestine. Others have been lost and no longer exist; for example the one that stood in the fields of Latrun.

During World War I, the imperialist armies used auxiliary manpower, labor corps, most of whose members were forcibly conscripted from among the peoples of the colonies where they ruled. One of the best-known of these forces was the Egyptian Corps that the British used on various fronts during the war, in Palestine, Iraq, Gallipoli on the Straits of the Dardanelles and even on the Western Front in France.

On the eve of World War I, Egypt was formally part of the Ottoman Empire, but was in fact controlled by the British Empire. At the outbreak of the war, Britain declared its separation from the Ottoman Empire (which was fighting alongside Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Britain, France and Russia) and declared it a British protectorate. It imposed an emergency military government on Egypt and put its human and material resources at the disposal its war effort. In the campaign to conquer the Sinai, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, Britain instituted a Directorate of Military Labor in Egypt. Subordinate to this administration was the command of the Egyptian Labor Corps, which was based at Kantara and later at Lod.

In his book "The Revolution of 1919: The History of Nationalist Egypt 1914-1921," Egyptian historian Abed al-Rahman al-Rafe'i wrote that the British military authorities conscripted the forced laborers for a limited period of three or four months, but held them against their will for longer periods and related to them as prisoners. They were moved, roped together, under heavy guard and in cattle cars. They performed hard labor, their food was meager and when they fell ill they did not receive proper treatment. Many of them died on the battlefields, in the Sinai Desert, in Iraq or in France; many others became ill and disabled.

With the end of the war, the stories of those who returned to their homeland told about the cruel treatment fed the opposition to British rule. Rafe'i quotes British newspapers, among them Vanguard Worker, of April, 1919, in which there were strongly colored and chilling descriptions of the forced conscription of workers in the villages of Egypt, among them boys of 14 and men of 60, and of the difficult conditions in which they worked and were kept, while they had to leave their farms neglected.

Ostensible volunteers

The testimony of a senior British officer in Egypt, Lieutenant Colonel P. George Elgood reinforces the Egyptian historian's descriptions. In his book "Egypt and the Army," he described the way the men of the force were conscripted, first ostensibly voluntarily but actually by force and coercion. The peasants, who absolutely did not want to leave their lands and their villages, related to their conscription as tyranny and forced labor. The corps command at Kantara issued lists of the conscripts and applied heavy pressure to the provincial governors (mudir), who in turn pressured the village headmen (`omda). The conscription was carried out with threats and intimidation, through methods of informing, bribery and corruption.

The government of Egypt, wrote Elgood, was opposed to the draconian measures employed by the British army in conscripting the forced laborers, but did not make this public. Elgood also wrote about the forced requisition of camels, horses and donkeys from the peasants. The Egyptians' anger at the compulsory conscription of their countrymen was also pressed in the "Report of the Special Mission to Egypt, 1921," a memorandum written by the British envoy to Egypt, Lord Alfred Milner, which enumerated the causes of the 1919 revolution in Egypt.

The basic unit of the Labor Corps was the gang, which numbered 49 people headed by a rais. Every platoon of 600 conscripts was commanded by a ranking British officer. Even though they were not soldiers in every respect, they were subject to strict military discipline, including corporal punishment. They did not wear military uniforms, but rather a standard civilian garment that suited the comfortable weather conditions of Egypt, but not the cold weather conditions in other places, especially during the cold winter of 1918. The main elements of their diet were ful (fava beans) and lentils.

The men of the Egyptian Labor Corps were engaged in, among other things, laying the railroad network in Sinai and Palestine. The deputy director of the Railroad Museum in Israel, Paul Cotterell, states in his book "The Railways of Palestine and Israel," that 26,000 laborers from Egypt worked on laying the tracks. Others paved roads, laid water pipes, erected buildings and storehouses, worked as stevedores at the harbors of Gaza and Jaffa, loaded and unloaded goods from ships and trains, tended pack animals and more.

The figures as to the numbers of them are contradictory: While the Egyptian Rafe'i determined that the British army conscripted more than a million forced laborers in Egypt, an official British source ("A Brief Report on the Advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force," second edition, 1919) reported that the Egyptian Labor Corps numbered about 100,000 men, and along with them, about another 35,000 Egyptians in the camel, horse and mule transport units.

The harsh conditions for working and living and particularly the breaking of the commitment to release the men from service after three or four months of "volunteering," caused ferment among the forced laborers. The inhumane attitude of British military authorities to the Egyptian Labor Corps extended to the deaths of the men, as well as among the pack animals. From documents in the archive of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Britain, it emerges that the men of the Egyptian Labor Corps, who died in Egypt and Palestine, were buried in 17 different cemeteries in those countries. However, state the documents, there is additional evidence that their graves were not properly documented and that marking them was impossible.

According to these documents, the number of Egyptian dead, most of them unidentified and most of them buried in Palestine, is approximately 2,200. This figure has never been confirmed.

Unmarked heaps of earth

Israeli researcher Amram Scheyer, who 30 years ago published the study "Lawrence, the Revolt in the Desert and Afterward," has in recent years been seeking out the burial sites of the men of the Egyptian Labor Corps in the area of Palestine, and was astonished to find that they are anonymous and some have even disappeared. The dead were buried in improvised graves, some of them temporary, on plots of land near military camps, hospitals, collections stations for the wounded and train stations, and a few of them in Muslim cemeteries. The dead were buried without proper records and without any notation of their names and the dates of their death. Unmarked heaps of earth marked the burial places.

When the war ended and thousands of families of the dead in Egypt found out that the burial place of their loved ones was unknown, the ferment, anger and opposition to the rule of Great Britain mounted. During the war, the British imposed an emergency military government, dissolved the Egyptian parliament, revoked the constitution, initiated censorship, imposed a war economy and forced labor, taxed cotton crops and limited the amount of land on which it could be grown, damaged farms, forced contributions to the Red Cross, confiscated property and caused prices to skyrocket.

All this led to the popular uprising of 1919 in Egypt, the outstanding spokesman of which was Saad Zagloul (1892-1927), the father of the modern Egyptian nationalist movement. Zagloul's exile did not calm things down and the British government had to bring the commander of the (British) Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Edmund Allenby, back to Egypt and appoint him high commissioner.

In their attempts to restore calm concerning the casualties of the Egyptian Labor Corps, the British authorities transferred responsibility for the matter to Imperial War Graves Commission. This is now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and its permanent representative is working out of its offices at the British cemetery in Ramle.

In the correspondence between the British authorities in London and Cairo, Scheyer found a memorandum written on November 18, 1924, by the chairman of the Anglo-Egyptian War Cemeteries Commission in Cairo, W. Hastings. It turns out that as early as 1920, representatives of the British High Command had declared that it was impossible to identify the buried dead by name. All the casualty lists were sent by the British authorities to the Egyptian authorites to enable them to give grants and pensions to the dead men's families; however, after investigating, Hastings noted that sending the lists the Egyptian authorities was undesirable, as the latter were likely to compare the treatment of the graves of the men of Egyptian Work Corps with the treatment of the graves of the British and Indian soldiers. Thus, the British authorities restricted themselves to erecting anonymous monuments that mention the number of dead without their names and sometimes without noting their place of burial. Among other things, the correspondence reveals that in February of 1925, the British administration budgeted a total of 200 pounds sterling for the erection of the obelisk at Deir Suneid.

Scheyer, who has searched for the burial and memorial sites for the dead of the Egyptian Labor Corps on the ground and in documents, found them at Deir Suneid near Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, at Nahal Soreq, at the "junction station" on the railway line to Jerusalem, at the cemetery at Bab al-Rahma (the Mercy Gate) in Jerusalem, in the British military cemetery at the Carmel Beach in Haifa, near the railroad tracks in Tul Karm, and at the British military cemetery in Ramle - where there is a memorial stone to 966 anonymous men from the Egyptian Labor Corps - who are buried nearby.

After the establishment of the state, the remains of the war dead of various nationalities, who had been buried at Sharona (in Tel Aviv) and at Wilhelma (Moshav Bnei Atarot) were brought to the cemetery in Ramle. In the summer of 2000, Scheyer photographed at Kibbutz Nahshon what remains of the memorial stone to 68 dead of the Egyptian Labor Corps that stood in the fields of Latrun and was moved to Nahshon several years after the war of June, 1967. The memorial stone is no longer there. Members of Kibbutz Nahshon do not know where it is. In the old Muslim cemetery at Jabalya in Jaffa, there is no trace of the graves of the dead of the Egyptian Labor Corps.

At Gizeh, near Cairo, there is a central memorial site that is nothing but two brass plaques attached to the wall of a laboratory for research into eye diseases. This was donated to Egypt in 1926 by the Imperial War Graves Commission, in an attempt to assuage the Egyptians' anger.

About two weeks ago, at the end of a joint trip to some of the memorial sites, Scheyer explained his interest in them: "Supposedly, military cemeteries in which simple soldiers and officers, fighters of different nationalities, sometimes even those who fought against one another, have been laid to rest side by side create a sense that a common, human, egalitarian basis has been created by their deaths. Some might define this as democratic. However, the memorial stones to the men of the Egyptian Labor Corps in World War I, who died and were buried anonymously, testify that in the eyes of those who conscripted them by force to participate in the war effort, that is - the leaders of the British Empire - they were nothing more than inferior beings, of no value and with no names, who were not worthy of any memory."

Even the testimony of Field Marshall Archibald Wawell, in his book "The Palestinian Campaigns," who praised the huge contribution of the men of the Egyptian Labor Corps to the imperial war effort in the region and wrote that they worked under difficult conditions, often under fire, and suffered losses, didn't help them.