Even the date mocked General Henri Fernand Dentz, for it was Bastille Day. As he took up the pen his throat must have worked. Last year he signed Paris away to the conquering Nazis. Now, as Vichy's High Commissioner to the Levant States, he was about to sign Syria away to the conquering British and, even worse, to the conquering Free French. General Dentz, who rather resembles a provincial druggist in uniform, sighed and signed his full name.
Two days before, the Pact that ended the five-week Syrian War had been merely initialed by Vichy's Brigadier General Joseph Antoine Sylvain Râoul de Verdillac, who went to Acre in Palestine for the armistice talks* held in the officers' mess of the Sidney Smith Barracks. When diminutive General de Verdillac uncapped his pen for the initialing, all the lights in the room suddenly fused out. So the war that started in the early morning moonlight of June 8 ended in the light of a dispatch rider's motorbike head lamp which was brought in from outside.
De Verdillac went to Acre instead of General Dentz, because he is more pro-British, less anti-De Gaulle than his superior. With Lieut. General Sir Henry Maitland ("Jumbo") Wilson at the H-shaped conference table was General Georges Catroux, Free French commander of the campaign, condemned to death by Vichy. The sight of him might have caused General Dentz pain. General de Verdillac, however, lost no time in putting things on a cozy footing. He leaned toward an Australian sentry, winked, made a throat-slitting gesture with one hand and whispered: "Les Baches!"
Despite the generosity of the original British terms, the neck-in-noose Government at Vichy bleated of dishonor, made a brief show of refusing them, then dumped the whole mess into General Dentz's lap. After thanking the Vichy forces who took part in the campaign, Marshal Henri Philippe Petain declared to Syria's civilians: "France is going to suffer an eclipse in the Levant as sad for her as for you."
But sadder than Vichy's eclipse in the Levant might have been the fate of all British Middle East defense had not Syria been taken. Beginning with the Iraq revolt last spring when they used Syrian bases to fly aid to Rashid Ali El-Gailani, the Germans had increasingly filtered into the country. If the Axis had got control of Syria the British Middle East Command might as well have folded its tents and gone home.
That Syria was a rather jumboesque campaign was hardly General Jumbo Wilson's fault. He had to tread warily lest he inflame Arab sensibilities or drive Vichy further into the arms of the Axis. The Allies' hope that large-scale deserticras and native uprisings would quickly crack General Dentz's defense did not materialize. They had not reckoned that his seasoned regulars would fight no matter who gave the orders. On the British and Free French they had inflicted nearly 1,500 casualties.
*The first between Great Britain and France since Napoleon's day.