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The Theater of War comes to Lebanon

A corner of the place des Cannons, showing some of the troops and the crowds..jpg

A corner of the place des Cannons, showing some of the troops and the crowds.

Imperial War Museum album, Archives and Special Collections, Jafet Library, AUB

War comes to Beirut

May 3, 1941, the war broke out in our immediate neighborhood. Iraq joined the conflict on the German side. General Dentz sent train loads of ammunition to help the Iraqis, and turned over the aerodromes at Aleppo and Palmyra to the Germans. The Iraq Petroleum Company wells at Kirkuk and the pipe line were seized upon. Italian and German agents instigated a large number of Iraqi students to march out from an assembly and to parade down the main street of the town. Realizing that the frontiers were sure to be closed, we sent over 700 students home with credit for the work which they had done. Most of the American and European members of the faculty and staff went to Palestine on a few hours notice. Legal papers were signed in a government office, turning over the management of the University to an Arab committee, as soon as I should leave the country. Although there were informal classes for the Syrian and Lebanese students until May 24th, there was no regular commencement. As the Germans actually had control of the entire region, every­body took it for granted that a German airborne division would soon appear.


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The British Mediterranean fleet on patrol. ca. 1940s, on board the destroyer HMS Jervis, The British Imperial War museum

The Allies Cross the Lebanese Frontiers

"June 8th, the British and Free French crossed the frontiers and started their invasion of Lebanon and Syria. After five weeks of unexpectedly severe fighting an armistice was signed on July 15th and the country was occupied by the Allies. During this period, fifty-five beds in the Hospital were occupied by wounded soldiers, and a score of the ladies of the community used the faculty room as a center for the preparation of bandages and other supplies.

Report of the President of the American University of Beirut for the Seventy-Fifth Year, 1940-1941: p 17



Hammana, Lebanon. September 2, 1941. Major General A. S. "Tubby" Allen (centre), commander of the Australian 7th Division, with Lt Colonel Murray Moten (centre right), commander of the 2/27th Infantry Battalion and his men. (Photographer: Frank Hurley) image

Nightly Bombing of the City and the Campus as a shelter

The nightly bombing in the city was so severe that two dormitory buildings were filled by the families of graduates and members of the Staff, while over a hundred refugees from the city slept beside trenches or crowded into shelters on the campus. 

"After the signing of the armistice, the Vichy troops moved out of the city and a brigade of Australians took their place. The athletics facilities of the university were made available for the soldiers, and West Hall was organized as a recreation center. On July 27th General De Gaulle and General Catroux visited the University. General Lavarack of the Australian Imperial Forces, spent an afternoon in the institution and many officers enjoyed tennis, swimming, cricket and tea on the campus."

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Famine scenes during WWI, ca. 1915

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


Fears and Memories of WWI

"Inflation and food shortages immediately engaged the reconstituted civic order. The years 1941–42 were the darkest days of wartime hardship. The summer harvest of 1941 was poor, and both public panic and government alarm rose: “Fearing a famine like that of 1917–1918, all of Mount Lebanon speaks of protests and demonstrations,” French police reported on September 9. Ten days later, similar reports came from Aleppo and Damascus. Food prices soared far beyond wage raises (the cost of food rose 450 percent and the general cost of living rose about 300 percent between January 1939 and January 1943). Infant mortality, a primary indicator of public health, peaked throughout the Middle East in 1942." Elizabeth Thompson, The Climax and Crisis of the Colonial Welfare State in Syria and Lebanon during World War II, chapter 3, in War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East .This situation "...necessitated the University to borrow $83,000 probably due to the advance purchase of food stuffs and other essential supplies on account of the war."

Minutes of Board of Trustees 1930-47: p. 117