Al mashriq - The Levant

ACS During World War I

by H. Huntington Bliss '21

To introduce myself, I am the son of Howard S. Bliss, the president of the A.U.B. from 1902 to his death in 1920. I was born on the campus in Marquand House.

There were only about 30 of us in the school. Our class was the largest, nine pupils. The Principal was Miss Thornton, an English woman, who lived in our house. There were two American teachers, Miss Wilson and Miss Gates, both of whom later married A.U.B. professors.

The school building was formerly a native house with a large entrance court surrounded on three sides by school rooms. We had a playground with lots of trees. There was no boarding department. The children of missionaries living in Sidon, Tripoli, or Zahleh stayed with friends in Beirut and went home for vacations.

So many wonderful things happened to us in those early days that it is hard to pick out any that stand out as being worth recording. I think the most exciting happening was the entrance in 1917 to Beirut of the British forces as they made their way up the coast after the battles in Palestine against the forces of Djemal Pasha, the Turkish commander. The main allied forces came up inland through Damascus and Aleppo, but there was a force that came up the coast through Tyre and Sidon. This force was made up mostly of Indian troops: Sikhs, tall, handsome men always wearing turbans except in battle; and Gukhars, short, wiry men whose curved swords were their special weapons. These troops were camped in the pine woods south of Beirut.

I still can't remember what we, Freddy Erdman and I -- 14-year- olds -- thought we were going to do, but we hopped a trolley (called a tram) and took it to the end of the line. Then we walked to the forest where the troops were camped. Hundreds of Lebanese were also out there watching the troops; so we were by no means alone. The troops were at leisure. Some were kicking a soccer ball around. One, completely naked, was getting wrestling lessons from an old man, and others were cleaning rifles or just resting.

We got talking to two English lieutenants, and almost without thinking, we invited them to have dinner with us at home. I have often wondered why they trusted us, but they accepted our invitation. I think they were tired of their daily menu of bully beef and biscuits, and were excited by thoughts of a decent meal in the homes of Americans. When we got on the crowded tram on the way home, the other passengers were shouting greetings, singing songs, and clapping their hands. They were so glad to have seen the last of the Turks and the occupation by the British.

I took one lieutenant home, and Fred took the other to his home. Our food during these war years was strictly limited in variety but adequate in amount. I think that evening we had fried eggs, a vegetable or two and fruit. To the lieutenant it all tasted wonderful. How he got back to his camp that night, I never knew, but I am sure he enjoyed the meal and a little touch of home life. My father never reprimanded me for what I had done. As I look back on it, what I had done might have caused a political incident: bringing an enemy on to the campus. (As a footnote to this, the British remained in Lebanon for over a year until the fate of the countries of the Near East was decided at the Paris Peace Conference: France was put in charge of Lebanon and Syria; England was the protector of Palestine.)

Another event that affected everybody was the arrival of the plague of locusts that flew in one Sunday afternoon in 1915 and stayed for over a year. Locusts breed in the Arabian desert, but if the winter there is a mild one, not many are killed by the cold, and the winds carry them to the north. I was in Sunday school looking out of the window to the south. I noticed that the bright sky was suddenly covered by a dark, moving cloud. The locusts had arrived. After Sunday school, I hurried home, grabbed my tennis racket, stood at the north end of our tennis court, and batted them as they came along driven by the south wind to their deaths in the Mediterranean below our house.

A few months later when the breeding season for locusts had started, our whole school went out to the sand dunes to dig up the cases of eggs that the locusts had embedded there. The Government obliged all citizens to bring in a certain weight of eggs, hoping the destruction of greenery could be lessened. As it turned out, the locusts won and ate all the green in sight.