Gaza’s ‘blood-dimmed tide,’ and the undercurrents of World War I

In Gaza, the dead do not rest in peace.

A Remembrance Day ceremony set for tomorrow in Gaza marking the armistice of World War I, or Veterans Day as it is called in America, was canceled after the 100-year-old Commonwealth War Cemetery was reportedly damaged amid the fierce shelling in the month-long, Israel-Hamas war.

And it is not just historic burial grounds, but all of Gaza’s cemeteries that are disturbed and completely overcrowded. A photojournalist described hastily offloading the bodies of 32 members of his family in in Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip and burying them in graves marked with cinder blocks as he offered abbreviated Muslim prayers for the dead before fleeing Israeli shelling that was closing in around the few still among the living in his family. Other Palestinian families have reported having to dig up family plots in Gaza cemeteries to deepen them so that bodies of loved ones wrapped in plastic could be added. 

Freshly dug mass graves across the rubble of Gaza hold many of the up to 10,000 Palestinians, nearly half of whom are children, killed in the waves of Israeli airstrikes and ground invasion over the last month. These mounds of dirt represent makeshift markers of loss in a war still unfolding at a pace that just does not allow time for the proper, religious burial of the dead. The chaos in Gaza is set against a backdrop of ongoing bombardment and a human wave of more than 1 million displaced Palestinians fleeing the fighting. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called Gaza “a graveyard of children.”

In Israel, after the October 7 terrorist rampage by Hamas militants who killed 1,400 people and took more than 230 hostages, the overflowing morgues and mutilated remains left little opportunity for the traditions of burial in Judaism. Meanwhile, Israel is bracing for the next phase of the war amid fears there will be more of their own military casualties as Israeli ground troops step up the invasion of Gaza and go down into the labyrinth of tunnels built by Hamas where it is presumed the hostages are being held. 

This is the grim toll still mounting in a war that has brought the Middle East to the brink. Now the international communities’ call for a cease-fire is rising as world leaders express the need to allow for humanitarian aid to get through as the humanitarian crisis worsens. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects the notion of a ceasefire saying it would give Hamas time to regroup and his government has made it a goal to destroy Hamas. President Joe Biden has urged Israel to consider “tactical pauses” for humanitarian aid and to allow for hostages to be released but has openly expressed support for Israel’s vow to topple Hamas and destroy its operational capacity.

Amid all this, it seems fitting to take time to reflect on Remembrance Day and ponder the history of the armistice that ended the horrors of World War I. The day marks that moment in history on the “11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour” when all sides in the fighting decided to end years of senseless killing. Over the past 100 years, the day has become a time to honor the fallen of all wars and to reflect on the unique horrors of World War 1 which killed more than 20 million military personnel and countless civilians. Today and over the weekend, communities across America and around the world will cluster together in cemeteries that hold the dead of so many wars and they will march in parades with veterans in uniform.

The diplomacy at the end of World War I  was sometimes referred to as “the peace to end all peace” as many see the flawed approach to resolution leading directly to World War II. The failures of the peace agreement are still felt deeply in the Middle East. The victors of World War 1, the British and the French, divided up the Middle East into the modern nation-states we know today. The lines were arrogantly drawn on the map, disregarding history and a sense of the people and their relationship to the land. A British and French diplomatic duo famously penned what was known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement which included maps

So how does Gaza fit in the war’s history? In 1918, the British took control of Gaza from the Turks of the fallen Ottoman Empire. That 100-year-old cemetery in Gaza holds the soldiers of the Commonwealth killed in a series of three battles in which the British Egyptian expeditionary force under the leadership of the storied Field Marshal Edmund Allenby defeated the Ottoman troops stationed there as the British pushed forward to take historic Palestine and eventually Jerusalem. 

The British Mandate of Palestine ruled Gaza for the next 30 years until the modern state of Israel was declared through a vote by the United Nations. As the British pulled out of Palestine in 1948, the Arab armies attacked the new state of Israel which was able to hold on not only to the 50 percent of the land that was in their control as a result of the partition but to take an additional 28 percent. So Israel, after the 1948 War of Independence, controlled 78 percent of what was historic Palestine with approximately 25 percent of the population. Gaza fell under the rule of Egypt. The West Bank was under the control of Jordan. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Israel captured and occupied the remaining 22 percent, which included Gaza and the West Bank. 

The Palestinian family that for three generations has tended to the cemetery and organized the annual gathering tells the story of all this history and the suffering of the current crisis as well. The Jaradeh family, which ended up in Gaza after being forced out of their homes in 1948 after the creation of the state of Israel, was forced once again to flee their home adjacent to the World War I cemetery in Gaza, leaving behind the neat rows of 3,000 white marble headstones in a manicured green field that has always stood out against the gray concrete of the densely packed city and the warrens of cinder blocks in its dusty refugee camps. The cemetery contains graves for 3,691 dead – 3082 British, 263 Australians, 184 Turkish (Ottoman), 50 Indians, 36 Poles, 23 Canadians, and 23 New Zealanders as well as smaller numbers who were South African, Greek, Egyptian, German, French, Yugoslavian or not identifiable. The simple gravestones typically list the names of the fallen, their rank, regiment, the date they died, and their age. There are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus who are each buried with others of their faith. Much of this part of the city is now reduced to rubble, and it remains unclear how extensive was the damage to the WW1 cemetery.

The Jaradeh family was among the hundreds of thousands fleeing on foot yesterday along the main road south to avoid the relentless bombardments in the north end of the coastal strip of Palestinian land between Israel and Egypt. Back in 2018, I visited the World War 1 cemeteries of the Holy Land as part of a special report on the 100th anniversary of the armistice titled “The Eleventh Hour – The Lessons of the Great War.” 

It was November 11th, 1918, after 65 million troops were marshaled forward along the trench lines of The Great War, as it was called in its day, and after 20 million soldiers were killed and 21 million more people were wounded, the guns fell silent. And then the victors, the French, the British and the Americans, began to divide the world. They would spend six months in Paris in 1919 codifying new international organizations and drawing new national boundaries that would give shape to new countries including Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

 And today, those lines on the map continue to shape contemporary conflicts around the world, particularly in the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration would be used to give shape to Palestine and eventually to Israel. The Sykes-Picot agreement would give birth to a new nation named Iraq. The colonial arrogance and the deep ignorance of those who drew these lines on the map unleashed a host of competing claims and conflicting boundaries that still simmer with violence and military conflict. They are not just chapter headings in dusty history books, they are a living reality and the Israel-Hamas war is a continuum of all that history.

It is a history that informs the present and that is there to be seen by those who are willing to step back and put the pieces together. And now seems a good time — indeed an urgent time — to perhaps step back and put things together, and to ask what are the lessons of World War One and why is it more urgent than ever to be sure we’ve learned them.  How did the fighting unleash such a wave of creative resistance to war through music and poetry, and what can we hear in those songs and the spoken word that will help us better understand the moment we live in today? One poem in particular seems stunningly relevant to the violence we are seeing today in the Israel-Hamas war, and that is the 1920 poem by the Irish writer William Butler Yeats titled “The Second Coming” which speaks to the sense of foreboding and dread that was felt after World War I and which was prescient in seeing the gathering darkness that would shape World War II. In hearing this poem today, it is hard not to feel that same sense of dread and foreboding and the sense of a “widening gyre,” as Yeats put it, of history that has a force of its own: 

“… Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.”

 (An excerpt from William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming.” Please revisit the GroundTruth podcast archive for the season titled “The Eleventh Hour” to hear our late WGBH colleague Brian O’Donovan offer a memorable reading of Yeats’ poem.)