A name that hovered over Alamein: Thoughts of those killed in wars past and present swept across the cemetery where Robert Fisk attended a memorial for a great Allied victory

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The Independent Online
WHAT WAS the message of Alamein yesterday? It was not the prim, waxworks figure of the Prime Minister nor the tall, funereal presence of the Duke of Kent, nor the honour guard of British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand troops. Even the desert sand, whipping across the cemetery as it did across Alamein 50 years ago, contained no lessons. 'Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer' may have had something to do with it, sung gently by the survivors, one of whom sang manfully away while his amputated knees bumped gently against the hinges of his artificial legs. It was at least an hour before one realised that Alamein was about the terror of a new world, the real fear that we may do it all again, even - and this came only at the end - about Bosnia.

Of course, all the old words were used: honour, sacrifice, obedience, the going down of the sun. Powerful comfort to the bereaved, perhaps, though one can never know if the dead share these warm convictions. There were sufficient European ministers present to show that politicians still understand their electorate and a clutch of clergymen large enough to enrage a Siegfried Sassoon. The Duke of Kent assured the survivors that 'they shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old'. And at the cemetery gates, souvenir sellers were hawking Pharaohnic lookalikes and the air-conditioned buses were ready to truck the old soldiers off to Cairo.

There was the band of the Sherwood Foresters, a French military contingent, officers of the Egyptian army - under British rule, the Egyptians formed a rearguard behind Alamein even if a certain Subaltern Anwar Sadat was trying to send Montgomery's secrets to Rommel - and a few American officers, gathered up from the multinational force in Sinai and the UN Truce observers in Cairo. Yes, the Americans had every reason to be at Alamein, for they, too, served in the battle, even though historians have forgotten them.

Their only veteran was former Section Leader William Kahlo of the US Field Service, whose 150 volunteer ambulancemen and medics drove through Afrika Corps shellfire for a year alongside the 8th Army and the Free French. Two US volunteers were killed at Bir Hakeim. British, French, Americans, Egyptians. Where had one seen this coalition before?

There are almost 12,000 Allied names without bodies at Alamein, men - as the stone memorial chillingly puts it - 'to whom the fortune of war denied a known and honoured grave'. As the old soldiers there knew, this rubric obscures the reality of limbs and heads so torn apart, of identities so atomised by armour-piercing shells, that no survivor could piece their remains together. On the tombstones of 7,367 whose bodies were found and buried here, the need to transform death into victory is eloquent. On the grave of Driver Park, 21, of the Royal Army Service Corps, who died on 4 October 1942, 19 days before the battle began, it is written: 'So he passed over and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.'

Contemporary accounts of the battle cannot be read so easily. 'One of the casualties has both legs and an arm blown off,' a British medic wrote of 24 October 1942. 'The right arm is thrown out at an angle and is held on to the body by a piece of skin. While I stand there, he regains consciousness and pleads, 'Kill me, God, please kill me'.'

Old Colonel Cyril Metcalfe of the Royal Durban Light Infantry yesterday recaptured the appalling images. 'We told our chaps that the German mine- clearers were coming through our wire on foot to make a way for the Panzers and that whatever they did, they had to get every one of them - every one. Well, it went on for hours but in the end we got every one of those poor devils.'

Was this the cruelty of war and the sadness on other gravestones? Among the most poignant was for 26-year-old Lt D Denton who was killed on the 24th. 'Beloved husband of Yvonne Pamela,' the inscription read. 'One day, when we were young . . .' And the painful remark chiselled - presumably on his family's instructions - above the final resting place of Sgt H Shephard of the 2/43 Australian Infantry Battalion: 'Some day we'll understand'.

What would they understand, I asked Warrant Officer 1st Class Andrew 'Spike' Ellis, 79, veteran of the Indian tribal wars, Alamein, Palestine and Korea, his Chelsea Pensioners coat poppy- red in the Egyptian sun? 'War,' he said bleakly, 'is the pruning-fork of nations. It is the way the earth keeps the number of people on its surface capable of surviving on what the earth produces. There has been war for 2,000 years and there will always be wars until people stop fighting for economic and political reasons. Look at Yugoslavia . . . '

And there it was, the name that had hovered over Alamein all morning. The British, Americans, French and Egyptians. They had fought against German aggression. They had fought against Iraqi aggression. But they would not fight against Serbian aggression. The rows of Allied dead at Alamein - and the estimated 11,000 Axis bodies up the coast road - are the reason why the West now cringes at the prospect of military involvement in the Balkans.

The Englishman who has promised to send 2,000 British troops to Bosnia looked again and again at the headstones yesterday. And at the end of the ceremony, a military padre almost formulated Alamein's message. 'Pray,' he said, 'for the United Nations organisation and all who work on behalf of the weak, the underprivileged and the undernourished.' He asked God to help peace-keepers. No one used the word Sarajevo. No one mentioned Bosnia. But we knew what he meant.

(Photograph omitted)