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Aleppo: two tragedies 100 years apart

In a bright reading room of the National Archives in Kew I learned of another human disaster in Aleppo and the surrounding area nearly a century ago. Deciphering the faint pencil written war diary of my father’s unit, I discovered that the end of the First World War had tipped him into harrowing events.

His job after the armistice was not celebrating victory over the Turks in the Syrian city but getting food to the survivors of the Armenian genocide.

The television pictures of people streaming towards the Turkish border to escape the current assault on Aleppo are not as horrific as photographs of those of survivors forced to walk from Turkey into the desert. But we cannot measure human suffering in degrees of horror — neither event should have happened. They both shame mankind.

The British newspapers of late 1918 have no eye-witness accounts of the aftermath of the victory at Aleppo. It was said simple that the British had taken Aleppo but the truth is that there were few British soldiers there; it was mostly Arab and Indian cavalry and a motorised Australian unit. Capt Pierre Grant-Adamson had returned from South Africa to join a Royal Army Service Corps horse train.

Other documents at Kew showed that in 1919 he was returned to the UK suffering from “recurrent malaria” but I wonder if that is the whole truth. Subsequent medical boards are sparse on detail.

He spoke of Turkish atrocities but as a child I took those to be a part of the war. There are many questions I now wished I has asked. His behaviour after the war was erratic. He left a wife in South Africa, met my mother when she was nursing him in Ireland (only after she died did I discover that her training was as mental health nurse). He moved from place to place unable to settle and was terrible with money.

Only after the late 1930s did he become more settled. I was born in 1942 when he was in his mid 60s.

Lord Curzon, secretary of state for foreign affairs, told the House of Lords in late 1919 that the British were looking after 12,000 Armenia refugees in the immediate neighbourhood of Aleppo.

In the same debate Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, described how these Armenians had arrived in Aleppo:

….”Set out” means, of course, that they were driven from their homes with the express intention of their being taken somewhere to be settled, were driven for the most part into wild regions over roads of such length and under such conditions of hardship that the survival only of the strongest of them was possible. All the young men before that time had in every single case been taken away, and the old men, the women, and the children were the people who survived to be the victims of the deportation— From the village of E 212 individuals set out, of whom 128 (60 per cent.) reached Aleppo alive; 56 men and 11 women were killed on the road, 3 girls and 9 boys were sold or kidnapped, and 5 people were missing. From the same place another party of 696 people were deported; 321 (46 per cent.) reached Aleppo: 206 men and 57 women were killed en route; 70 girls and young women and 19 boys were sold; 23 were missing. From the village of D a party of 128 were deported, of whom 32 (25 per cent.) reached Aleppo alive: 24 men and 12 women were killed en route; 29 girls and young women and 13 boys were sold; and 18 were missing.

Why the horrors of displacement should visit one city twice in a century can be debated endlessly. All we really know is that it is the responsibility of power seeking rulers, not the people who are forced to flee. The effects touch us all.