Extract from A Pilgrim to Mount Lebanon
, by Marc Malik
...during 1941 the French Army’s policy in this respect had vacillated, both over time and even between units, and many of us felt frustrated by this inconsistency at a time when, as we felt, all civilisation hung in the balance. Finally in January 1942 the Governor overrode the remaining obstacles and announced that we could indeed apply for commissioned rank. (Not only Maronites were included in this dispensation, but I believe we provided more officer candidates than any other community.) My father had made this a condition of my becoming a soldier. My mother, by contrast, had insisted that I get married and provide her with grandchildren, which I had done: therefore all my filial duties had been performed...
All that remained was for me to pay a final call on Father Owlthwaite, who gave me many wise words of encouragement. On my way to the harbour I saw the latest batch of propaganda posters, in French, Greek and Arabic, posters which gave great prominence to the American flag along all the others: the words ran, ‘the victory of the United Nations is now assured’. I prayed that in this case the propaganda should prove true. Thus, along with my old school friends (and now comrades-in-arms) Charles and Bachir, I boarded the transport taking the latest batch of replacements to the theatre of war...
Upon arrival in Piraeus, it seemed that the army, with its usual wisdom, had forgotten we were coming, and we spent some nights in great discomfort. At length they shunted us onto a train, with a new American locomotive, which took us to Megara, where we bought some (expensive, but passable) cheese and figs, before bringing us back to Athens. Our picnic-day-trip, we called it, and it seemed to have served no purpose whatsoever. A few days later, when we boarded the train again, this time ending up at Thebes, or Thiva as they call it now. ‘They must have heard we have studied the classics,’ said Charles, ‘they are truly giving us the tour.’ This time it was for real, and we began a long march into the hills.
We had all heard of the exploits of the 192nd, the “Mountain Goats”. To young men who knew Mount Lebanon, the hill-country of Greece held few terrors. We knew, of course, that the enemy posed a terrible danger, as they had shown only a few months earlier. But the progress of Allied arms in Sicily and elsewhere encouraged us. I would not say that we had received the best possible training; nonetheless we felt confidence as we climbed into the hills, a curious caravan of men, mules and a handful of tractors carrying artillery ammunition. We all noted how much better the shells, and even the animals, were treated than the men. I pointed this out to a French colonel, returning to his command after taking a wound during the retreat - I think his name was Beaufre - and he replied, ‘well, we humans have a good deal less value, it would seem.’ He chided some of the men for urging the mules on with more alacrity than caution.
My friends joined rifle companies of the Regiment du Liban
. Divisional staff, however, picked me, as a fluent English-speaker, to liaise with the English division on our right flank. This seemed like a plum post, and I said so. ‘Oh certainly,’ said the chief of staff, with a somewhat sly look, ‘our previous two liaison officers both got killed by artillery. Only one road connects our positions with the English, the Boche have their guns trained on it.’ Therefore, at first, I had some doubts whether I had been wise to pay so much attention to Father Owlthwaite’s lessons, and become his star pupil...
As Christmas 1942 approached, it became clear that neither side intended to make any move that year. All our plans were to build up our strength, above all in artillery, for an advance in February or March, this was the plan known as TIRADE. An endless stream of mules and vehicles - particularly the new American light trucks - bringing artillery and ammunition up from the plains. The Germans, doubtless, could see this, but could do little to interfere, since by now we had command of the air. On one of the rare days when the weather permitted flying, I saw three German bombers try to strike the road, but Greek fighters - Type 81s, said Bachir, who had actually paid attention during our aircraft-recognition classes - intercepted them. One bomber crashed behind our lines, and we all took the opportunity to take souvenirs: I still possess the scrap of metal, printed with a Gothic writing, that I took from the wreck.
Meanwhile I spent the winter making trips - usually by night - down the mountain to talk to my opposite number, the English liaison officer at the HQ of the 2nd Armoured, the “Hoplites”, whose tanks would surely play a large part in the offensive. This officer, a cultured gentleman named Captain Willbond, liked the jesting nickname ‘Parmenion’, and spoke Greek and French fluently. He took much delight in showing off the British tanks and guns, and I often lingered beyond the time required to perform my duties, out of my pleasure in his company.
On New Year’s Eve Charles and Bachir accompanied me on one of my visits to the Captain, as we planned to toast the New Year in the hope it would bring good fortune. We fell to talking about the prospects, and I recall this somewhat tipsy conversation for the way it illustrated the differences in perspective that may occur even between friends and allies.
‘I’ll wager we’ll turn the Hun out of Greece before next Christmas,’ said Parmenion.
‘A noble aim,’ I said. ‘I won’t take that wager.’ Bachir and I laughed.
‘It’ll take time to reach Berlin, though,’ he went on. ‘Still with splendid chaps like yourselves, no doubt of the result. Then your country will get its independence, no doubt, too. Empires have had their day.’
‘Now that I do believe,’ I said. ‘But I hope we will stay friends with France after the war.’
The Captain swirled his tumbler. ‘I expect afterwards I’ll turn into some old duffer always yarning on about the war. Tell me, Marc, what do you expect to do in peacetime? It will seem quite dull after all this.’
Charles, who had gone rather red, interjected. ‘Peacetime? What a word. Captain, we come from different worlds.’ He paused, the Englishman looked puzzled, his brow furrowed. ‘This war is your real war, Captain. For us, not so much.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, old chap.’
‘You will go home to England and tell - yarns - in your club. Good, you deserve no less. We will go home - God willing - and prepare for the next war.’ He paused again. ‘This war is a pastime to us. Do you not understand? For us, the real war is more likely to come to us, at home, on Mount Lebanon itself.’ His voice trembled.
‘Well, it’s a rough part of the world, I know…’ said the Captain.
Charles collected himself, and spoke in some evident bitterness of heart. ‘You have heard, maybe, about the Armenians, the Assyrians. How did your grandparents perish, Captain? All mine died in the famine of 1917.’
I felt he had gone far enough, and I could see Bachir agreed. ‘I fear that perhaps we do not endear ourselves to our neighbours, though,’ he put in. ‘The Syrians never wanted French rule - they got it anyway, by force, and no little bloodshed. We have perhaps not done well by tying our fortunes so closely to the French.’ Bachir, I knew, had begun to toy with nationalism, precisely as a way to diffuse, so he hoped, the sectarian enmities that have always plagued us.
Parmenion gave him a quizzical look. ‘But here you are, old chap, in a French uniform,’ he pointed out.
Bachir smiled. ‘I never pretended to be consistent.’
Charles looked like he wanted to say more, but he had drunk more than was good for him, and I doubted such talk would do much good. Yet clearly he had many fears for the future. Looking back, I can understand his anxiety, who would not, but thankfully his worst fears have not come to pass. At the time, Bachir and I said our farewells and half carried Charles back up the mountain. Halfway up, he seemed to become lucid for a moment. ‘Is this Mount Lebanon?’ he asked. No, we told him. ‘A pity,’ he said, ‘I would have liked to see home again. I never will.’
Most of our conversations were less emotional. It was with some relief that I resumed my visits in the New Year of 1943, and watched the Hoplites re-equip with new heavy tanks, specially designed, they said, to cope with hills. Yet more guns and shells arrived in the hills, and German planes became a rare sight.
All this gave us heart. Still, the prospect of having to drive a determined enemy, well-supplied with machine guns and mortars, out of prepared hilltop positions, did not appeal. Throughout the winter, we lost men in many little skirmishes. Poor Charles led a platoon on one patrol and suffered a dozen casualties, some of whom he had to leave behind, which pained him much. I fear my letters home to my wife and parents must have made poor reading for them during this period. I was too preoccupied to write much, or well. We felt a little like condemned men waiting for the guillotine; the veterans among us talked darkly of the hard fights they had been in against the Boche. And then, like sunrise, came the news of the fall of Mussolini.
This transformed the situation. The Italian armies which faced the Greeks (to our west) more or less disintegrated, the Greeks took tens of thousands of prisoners, and we also picked up many. Even though they had been enemies, our hearts were moved to see them, many of them wearing rags, many had not eaten for days, and they fell on our American rations eagerly. We found common ground with them when they came to our church services, and this helped us to trust them. A few even begged to remain with us. For instance there was one signals officer, whose name was Ruggieri, who said to me, ‘the Germans have occupied Lombardy, I cannot go home. I want to stay with you, and obtain satisfaction for all the injuries and insults the Germans have done to us.’ Usually we had to turn down such requests, but the Colonel turned a blind eye in some cases - particularly men like Tenente
Ruggieri, with skills in short supply.
On 19th February we moved cautiously forward and found the German positions abandoned. With picked our way through with a mixture of caution (the Germans loved to booby-trap everything they could), curiosity (they left behind some strange tin tubes, which we initially though might be glue, but turned out to be food) and disgust (especially for the trashy Nazi propaganda leaflets, adorned as they were with unflattering pictures of Englishmen, Africans and Jews). We found a good use for these last. Sometimes, though, we found more humane detritus, such as thin volumes of Goethe and even, on one memorable occasion, a record of Beethoven’s 7th. This we took to HQ, as we knew that Captain Bouchard, the intelligence officer, had a portable record-player. In the following days, the sound of Beethoven often soared over the high valleys in the evenings, and took us for a time away from thoughts of war.
The Germans, preoccupied with the need to occupy Albania and disarm their erstwhile Italian allies, could not resist for some time, and we advanced all along the lines. The days passed, and our excitement grew, as the Hoplites freed Larissa and the Greeks retook Ioannina, then pushed further north quickly and entered Albania. The English followed up with a heavy blow against the Bulgarians, who retreated past Olympus, enabling them to resume their old Haliakmon line, though the Germans and Bulgarians just managed to hold Salonika. In effect the enemy traded space for time, giving up Thessaly to secure Albania. The Greeks, exhausted by their great efforts, had to stop short of Vlore, as the collapse of Italian resistance to the Germans enabled the latter to form a defensive line in the hills north of Gjirokaster, where Greek I Corps made a brave, but unsupported attack that the Germans repulsed.
Meanwhile we pushed north in the centre, reaching the narrow, rushing Venetikos river (which I fell into, and had some alarming moments before my comrades pulled me out), and so took Grevena in March. We all felt great pride that, despite facing the hard terrain of the mountains, we had kept pace with the English as they advanced on our right, and the Greek Army on our left. The Colonel assembled his staff. ‘Two years ago,’ he said, ‘we stood here. What an effort, how many sacrifices it has taken to stand here again! But from now on, we shall only go forward.’
He spoke truly. The Germans had not quite finished retreating, and we kept the pressure on. A few days later we gazed down upon lake Orestiada. Bachir, Charles and I dared each other to swim in its chilly waters, a baptism that left us frozen yet joyous. It was a blessed moment, which I hope I shall always recall clearly.
The next day, Charles was leading his men forward when he entered an abandoned farmhouse. He disturbed a booby-trap, which detonated and killed him instantly.