The Syrian Protestant College and the Great War (1914-18) > 1915 > Locusts, Famine, Blockade and Disease

 

In 1915, and in an effort to cut the supplies to the Ottoman Forces, the Allies enforced a blockade of the entire Eastern Mediterranean, thus aggravating an already precarious social, economic and public health situation: attacked by the Locusts, plagued by disease (malaria, typhus, etc.) and famine, thousands perished. Mount Lebanon lost 20-30% of its population. A drought which had descended onto the region in the previous spring made things even worse; the Ottoman authorities issued paper money, thus depreciating the purchasing power of the Greater Syria inhabitants. The Turkish authorities, which had until then avoided bloody and direct confrontations with the local population, executed, in a public show of force, 21 Syrians and Lebanese in Damascus and Beirut, for alleged anti-Turkish activities. The date, May 6th, 1915, is still commemorated as Martyr's Day, in both Syria and Lebanon.

 

 

Famine  in Lebanon  1
Famine Scenes in Lebanon,  Asie francaise, Paul Huvelin, E. C. Achard, and Philippe Beriel. 1921. Documents economiques, politiques & scientifiques. Paris: L'Asie francaise

The economic conditions made things even worse: resources from agriculture were already depleted -- a drought had hit the region the previous year-- the blockade prevented export of goods to other countries (e.g. silk to Europe), and Arab and foreign populations who used to spend their summers in Lebanon stopped coming. High demand and scarcity of supplies caused food prices to sky-rocket: only the very wealthy could afford to purchase basic goods on the black market. In addition, exchange rates became increasingly volatile, and securing foreign funds by SPC and the red Cross at reasonable rates to support relief efforts were extremely difficult. Dodge, whose father helped finance some of the Soup kitchens set in the country recalls these difficult times in his Report of the Abeih and Souk el Gharb Kitchens: "All of the relief money was purchased at tremendous rates of exchange from investers and money lenders. On an average, a paper lira which was worth about a dollar, actually costs two dollars and seventy cents in New York, on account of the high exchange rates. At times it proved almost impossible to procure the cash, even at such exorbitant rates, and it was only due to the genius of the manager of the American Press in Beirut and to an emergency fund of gold, that the kitchen grain was bought. Bookkeeping became desperately difficult, as the difference between paper and gold money changed every hour, and as each part fo the country adopted a different scale of values and system of exchange."

 
Bayard Dodge, Report of the Abeih and Suk-el Gharb Kitchens, p.12-13, AUB Archives.

 

Famine in Lebanon
Famine Scenes in Lebanon,  Asie francaise, Paul Huvelin, E. C. Achard, and Philippe Beriel. 1921. Documents economiques, politiques & scientifiques. Paris: L'Asie francaise

Monopoly and greed made things even more precarious -- as the rare available supplies became concentrated in the hands of few greedy merchants-- and contributed heavily to the rising toll of famine.  Another curse, which accompanied starvation was disease: Typhus, smallpox and malaria spread among villages.

In his journal entry of May 23, 1917, Edward Nickoley writes:

"Our own community has had several cases [of typhus], fortunately none fatal, Dorman, Chesborough, Mrs. March and half a dozen students were all very ill. Miss Shepherd has just come out of the hospital and Miss La Grange at Tripoli is down with it now. We were exposed to the disease everywhere. The body lice which carry the disease may be picked up at any time and in any place. We find them in our recitation rooms after a class has gone, some of the students have brought them in their clothes. The latest dis­covery is that the beasts cling to flies and are carried about by them, another reason for swatting the fly. But, you see, there is no way of avoiding infection. The only thing to do is to keep clean and well, thus reducing the danger to a min­imum, both of being exposed and of contracting the disease when bitten.

 

Edward Nickoley Diary, 1917, Edward Nickoley Collection, AUB Archives.

 

 

 

Famine in Lebanon 4
Famine Scenes in Lebanon,  Asie francaise, Paul Huvelin, E. C. Achard, and Philippe Beriel. 1921. Documents economiques, politiques & scientifiques. Paris: L'Asie francaise

 

With the following words, Edward Nickoley describes the magnitute of the horror witnessed all around: "You never saw a starving person, did you? May the Almighty preserve you from this sight!!!"

"[...] Starving people lying about everywhere; at any time children moaning and weeping, women and children clawing over garbage piles and ravenous­ly eating anything that they can find. When the agonized cry of famishing people in the street becomes too bitter to bear people get up and close the windows tight in the hope of shutting out the sound. Mere babies amuse themselves by imitating the cries that they hear in the streets or at the doors."

 

Edward Nickoley Diary, 1917, Edward Nickoley Collection, AUB Archives.

 

 

Famine Scenes in Lebanon
Famine Scenes in Lebanon,  Asie francaise, Paul Huvelin, E. C. Achard, and Philippe Beriel. 1921. Documents economiques, politiques & scientifiques. Paris: L'Asie francaise
 

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