Blood and Sand

by Alex von Tunzelmann, Simon and Schuster, £25

The Suez Crisis, writes Alex von Tunzelmann, “could have been neatly resolved through diplomacy … saving everyone a lot of trouble”. Unfortunately, Britain, France and Israel did not want a neat solution. They hoped to rid themselves of Gamal Abdel Nasser so they embarked upon their “bellicose folly”. The sorry tale of the plots and secret protocols has been told many times before, but von Tunzelmann offers one of the liveliest accounts you’re likely to encounter.

Appropriately enough, Anthony Eden is hauled over the historiographical coals. His personal vendetta against Nasser is seen as pivotal. “There can be no doubt that Eden wanted to start a war,” writes von Tunzelmann, “he just did not want anyone to know he had started it.” You may find yourself cheering when you read of the moment in Parliament when Eden rebuffed the charge that the British were acting like burglars: Hugh Gaitskell came up with the wonderful line that “The Prime Minister is perfectly right. What we did was to go in and help the burglar and shoot the householder.”

The great achievement of this extraordinarily detailed book is that it places Suez in the widest possible context. We learn all about the strained relations with the US, the broader setting of empire shuffling towards its end and, crucially, contemporary events in Hungary. Von Tunzelmann tells this equally poignant story with gusto and reveals how the Soviets’ policies were profoundly influenced by the crisis in Egypt.

The “pantomime” nature of British policy only makes the whole story more ridiculous. Hugh Thomas, quoted by von Tunzelmann towards the end of her vibrant account, summed up Britain’s actions brilliantly: “The spectacle of over 100,000 men setting off for a war that barely lasted a day and then returning has few parallels in the long gallery of military imbecility. The Grand Old Duke of York at least got to the top of the hill.”

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