We met in the Western Desert

Fifty-five years ago, the battle for El Alamein was raging. The Allies triumphed, but at great human cost.
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The Independent Culture
On holiday, I love finding out the history of a place. It's a kind of voyeurism: a feeling of really getting to know not just the people who live there now (all travellers try to do that), but the people who used to live there - which is much more tricky. If I succeed, I feel I've been more than just a camera-clicking tourist; I've learnt something of a place's soul.

But visiting such a famous war zone as El Alamein, on a "coach stop" between Alexandria and Mersa Matrouh, two coastal towns in northern Egypt, felt strange. Gone was the detached and romantic interest of an amateur historian in a foreign land. Here, the history is ours. This silent desert was once a battlefield. In 1942, General Montgomery's Eighth Army defeated Rommel's Afrika Korps to secure access to the trade routes and oil supplies of the Mediterranean.

Now, thousands of miles from Britain, 11,945 headstones stand in perfect rows, surrounded by vivid purple azalea bushes on the vast desert plain -a World War Two echo of the corner of a foreign fields described by Great War poet Rupert Brooke.

To the holiday-maker, "the desert" conjures up images of endless sand dunes, camels and palm-fringed oases, but walk through El Alamein's military museum, and you realise that the desert for these men meant fear, boredom and death. Conditions in the Western Desert were so difficult that the war was described as "paradise for tactical planners and a nightmare for logisticians". Yet getting there today couldn't be easier, along a smooth new road flanked by beachside holiday flats for rich Egyptians.

One point that the holiday-maker and soldier would probably agree on, though, is that the desert wilderness now harbours an overpowering sense of peace. I walked among the headstones and read the ages: 21, 20, 18, 33, and then stopped at one exactly my age, 31, and read the inscription: "Will some dear friend in a foreign land lay down a flower for me? Belle." As I picked an azalea flower off one of the bushes and laid it on the rough desert floor in front of the headstone, I was shocked by my emotional reaction to a war I had not known and people I had no connection with, except by nationality. I had come here out of curiosity, and left feeling ashamed of my own superficiality, angry at such a massive loss of life, and saddened by the thousands of poetic inscriptions.

My holiday bubble had been well and truly burst. This "coach stop" had a history, and it had smacked me in the face.

Getting there: Alexandria is served three times a week from Heathrow by British Airways (0345 222111). Lowest return fare for travel this autumn is pounds 313, including tax. Travel advice: after last week's attack on tourists in Cairo, the Foreign Office warns that security of visitors to Egypt cannot be guaranteed. Call 0171-238 4503 for advice.

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